TIME medicine

World’s First Malaria Vaccine Could Be a Year Away

A Thai public-health official places a thermometer into a child's mouth at a malaria clinic in Sai Yoke district, Kanchanaburi province, Thailand, on Oct. 26, 2012 Sukree Sukplang—Reuters

Researchers published promising findings, while a pharmaceutical company applied for the first-ever regulatory approval of malaria vaccine

The world’s first malaria vaccine may just be a year away, after a thorough trial of a new drug showed promising results.

PLOS Medicine on Tuesday published a study, in which researchers found that for every 1,000 children who received the vaccine, 800 cases of illness could be prevented. The children also retained protection 18 months after being injected.

Now, pharmaceutical manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has applied the drug for regulatory approval — the first time a malaria vaccine has reached this stage.

“This is a milestone,” Sanjeev Krishna, professor of molecular parasitology and medicine at St. George’s, University of London, who reviewed the paper for the journal, told the BBC. “The landscape of malaria-vaccine development is littered with carcasses, with vaccines dying left, right and center. We need to keep a watchful eye for adverse events, but everything appears on track for the vaccine to be approved as early as next year.”

Around 800,000 people die from malaria every year, most of them children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa. Several African countries were involved in the trial of the new vaccine, which is developed by GSK in cooperation with the nonprofit Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, for which they have received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

TIME fitness

Study: Running 5 Minutes a Day Could Add Years to Your Life

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According to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, running 5 minutes per day can reduce an individual’s risk of premature death by about 3 years. Researchers found that people who ran less than an hour per week also saw an increase in lifespan, not just a decrease in risk of premature death. The study took place over the course of 15 years, testing participants ranging in age from 18-100.

Separate research found that running more than 20 miles per week could take years off an individual’s life, providing further evidence that less can be more with regard to exercise. According to that research, individuals who exhibit consistent but moderate workout patterns are likely to live the longest.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

What 28-Years of Solitary Confinement Does to the Mind

Alone prisonner
Getty Images

One Louisiana prisoner may get out of solitary confinement after nearly 30 years

Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, 59, has spent the last 28 consecutive years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, but a prison warden says he may be released to the general inmate population.

Whitmore reportedly spends 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. “We will get him out,” Warden Burl Cain, warden of the prison, told the Medill Justice Project, a group that investigates potentially wrongful convictions. “We’d rather him out. I need his cell. I’ve got some young people, predators, that need to be in that cell. When I can conclude he’s not going to cause me the blues, then he can come out of the cell.” Whitmore is in prison for second-degree murder.

According to the Medill Justice Project, Whitmore’s eyesight has deteriorated and he has hypertension. And if he’s similar to other cases of prisoners in solitary confinement, his health and mental health have likely deteriorated in other ways, too.

“Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. By doing things we learn who we are and we learn our worth as a person. The two things solitary confinement does is make people solitary and idle,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a professor of psychiatry at the Wright Institute in Berkeley California, who has spent over 40 years interviewing thousands of solitary confinement prisoners.

Though the impact of solitary confinement can differ person to person, there are some basic symptoms that are particularly widespread among inmates. Prisoners of long-term confinement—which Kupers says that’s about three months, though for some effects start to appear much sooner—often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking, as well as anger and compulsive actions, like pacing or repeatedly cleaning the cell. Basic cognitive functions are also dulled. “I have prisoners tell me they quit reading, which is one of the only things you can sometimes do,” says Kupers. “I ask why, and they say it’s because they can’t remember what they read three pages before.”

Prisoners in solitary confinement often develop confusion over when to be alert and when to sleep. In a report, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and a consultant in criminal cases writes: “[Solitary confinement prisoners] often find themselves incapable of resisting their bed during the day—incapable of resisting the paralyzing effect of their stupor—and yet incapable of any restful sleep at night. The lack of meaningful activity is further compounded by the effect of continual exposure to artificial light and diminished opportunity to experience natural daylight.”

Grassian tells TIME that without stimulation, people’s brains will move toward stupor and delirium—and often people won’t recover from it.

Even when prisoners are let out of solitary confinement, Grassian says, they are so overwhelmed by stimulus that they become incapable of tolerating their new environment and have trouble integrating back into the general population. Their brain waves jump and they become highly reactive. “I’ve talked to many of these prisoners who say it’s hellish for them,” says Grassian. “The often end up spending a tremendous amount of time in their cell.”

Whether Whitmore will be released into the general prison population remains uncertain but the fact that he has been attempting to take legal action against the prison may work in his mental favor, since Grassian says thinkers tend to do better.

“People that can use their minds tend to do relatively better,” he says. “They are able to maintain a degree of stimulation internally.”

And that’s all many can rely on.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

The Part of Your Brain That Senses Dread Has Been Discovered

This tiny part of your brain tracks bad experiences

A tiny part of the brain can keep track of your expectations about negative experiences—and predict when you will react to an event—researchers at University College London say.

The brain structure, known as the habenula, activates in response to negative events such as electric shocks, and they may help people learn from bad experiences.

The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marks the first time this association has been proven in humans. Earlier studies showed that the habenula causes animals to avoid negative stimuli by suppressing dopamine, a brain chemical that drives motivation.

In this study, investigators showed 23 people random sequences of pictures followed by a set of good or bad outcomes (an electric shock, losing money, winning money, or neutral). The volunteers were asked to occasionally press a button to show they were paying attention, and researchers scanned their brains for habenula activity using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Images were taken at high resolution because the habenula is so small—half the size of a pea.

When people saw pictures associated with painful electric shocks, the habenula activated, while it did not for pictures that predicted winning money.

“Fascinatingly, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, even though their response had no bearing on the outcome,” lead author Rebecca Lawson from the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This demonstrates a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behavior, which may be the result of dopamine suppression.”

The study also showed that the habenula responds more the worse an experience is predicted to be. For example, researchers said the habenula responds much more strongly when an electric shock is certain than when it is unlikely to happen. This means that your brain can tell how bad an event will be before it occurs.

The habenula has been linked to depression, and this study shows how it could play a part in symptoms such low motivation, focusing on negative experiences and pessimism in general. Researchers said that understanding the habenula could potentially help them develop new ways of treating depression.

TIME fitness

63% of Americans Actively Avoid Soda

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Crushed can Getty Images

The soda craze is going flat–at least, according to a new Gallup poll, which found that almost two-thirds of Americans actively avoid soda in their diet.

While 41% percent of those polled in 2002 said that they try to steer clear of soda, that number has now jumped to 63%. Gallup’s poll shows that generally Americans are making more effort to have healthier diets. More than nine out of ten Americans try to include fruits and vegetables in their diets, and 52% said that they are trying to avoid sugars.

Don’t start pouring one out for the dying soda business just yet, though. A 2012 Gallup poll also found that 48% of Americans drink at least one glass of soda a day.

TIME polio

The Battle to Eradicate Polio in Pakistan

A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad
A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year. But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard

Epidemiology can be all about geography—and that’s especially true when it comes to polio. If you live in the U.S., where polio was eradicated in 1979, the specter of the disease has faded almost entirely, though pockets of infections can occur among the unvaccinated. In Pakistan, however, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction, and have been for a while now.

One of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic (the other two are Nigeria and Afghanistan), Pakistan had been close to joining the world’s polio-free nations, with only 58 infections in 2012. But thanks to bans on vaccinating—and deadly attacks on polio fieldworkers—by the Pakistani Taliban, the caseload rose to 93 in 2013. In 2014, the total reached 99 by July 18—a figure all the more alarming compared to this point last year, when there had been just 21 cases.

“It’s a scary number,” says Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign. “Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this.”

The folks at Rotary know what they’re talking about. Since launching their polio eradication effort in 1985, they have been responsible for the vaccination of 2 billion children in 122 countries. Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, The Gates Foundation and others, they have helped slash the global infection rate from 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

That’s indisputably good news, but polio is an exceedingly sneaky virus, with 200 symptom-free carriers for every one case of the disease. That fact, combined with the anti-vaccine forces in Pakistan, not to mention the porous borders cause by war and unrest in the overall region, has caused the disease to leak out from the three endemic countries, with stray cases turning up in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In a handful of other countries, the virus has been detected in sewage, but it has not led to any cases of the disease—yet.

It’s Pakistan though that’s considered ground zero, and Rotary has announced that it’s now deploying some very simple weapons in what has always been a village-to-village, door-to-door battle. To improve surveillance and tracking—a maddeningly difficult job in a country in which so many people live off the communications grid—Rotary has distributed hundreds of cell phones to midwives who circulate through communities, canvassing residents to find out who has received the vaccine and who has been overlooked. Information on the unvaccinated kids—the “missing children” in the fieldworkers argot—is entered into the phones and uploaded to a central spreadsheet, allowing later vaccinators to target their efforts more precisely.

“The midwives also track pregnant mothers,” says Memon. “And when their children are born they can continue to maintain complete health records, not just for polio but for other vaccines and basic health care as well.”

Rotary has also worked with The Coca-Cola Company to build what’s known as a reverse osmosis water plant—essentially a sophisticated filtration facility—in the town of Malin, within the city of Karachi. Polio is a disease spread almost entirely by human waste, and once it leeches into the water system it can spread nearly anywhere. The Malir plant, which was constructed near a school to give polio-age kids the first access to the newly filtered water, is a relatively modest one, with just 20,000 gal. (76,000 liters) of clean water on hand at any one moment, and cost only $40,000 to build. But as a pilot project it represents a very good start. “We can’t build a massive plant like the government can,” says Memon. “This is a small plant for a small community.”

One thing, paradoxically, that’s working in the vaccinators’ favor is the increased number of displaced people in Pakistan. A recent push by the Pakistani military to flush the Taliban from its safe havens has broken the vaccination blockade, and already 350,000 children have received at least one dose of the polio vaccine. But 1.5 million refugees are scattered around the country. Rotary has dispatched field workers to refugee camps and transit points to identify the children and few adults who need the polio vaccine and administer it on the spot.

“The government did not have any idea about what the numbers of displaced people would be,” says Memon. In the refugee camps, he adds, there are at least 40,000 pregnant women, whose babies will have to be vaccinated shortly after birth.

The diabolical thing about polio—and indeed any disease science hopes to eradicate—is that even one case is too many. As long as any wild poliovirus is out there, everyone needs to be protected. It is only when the last scrap of virus has been found and snuffed, that the protective push can stop. That has happened once before in medical history—with smallpox. In the case of polio, it’s tantalizingly close to happening again.

TIME Aging

3 Simple Lifestyle Habits That May Slow Aging

There's more evidence for eating well, sleeping, and exercising

Stress makes our bodies age faster, but thankfully we can combat that with healthy eating and exercise, a new study says.

When cells age, telomeres—tips at the end of chromosomes—shorten. Telomeres help regulate the aging of cells, and their length has been used to determine the body’s current state of health. Things like stress and lifestyle behaviors can influence their length, as compelling earlier research has shown. In the new study, University of California, San Francisco, researchers looked at 239 post-menopausal women for a year and found that for every major life stressor they experienced during the year, there was a significant shortening in their telomere length.

That’s not great news, but the researchers also discovered that the women who ate a healthy diet, exercised and slept well had less shortening of their telomeres. It could be that the women’s healthy habits actually protect them from cellular aging, even in the face of life’s stresses.

The study, which is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is observational, which means the researchers cannot say with certainty that it was these healthy lifestyles alone that offered them protective benefits. But at the very least, it shows once again that doing our best to eat well, sleep, and exercise can give us an edge.

TIME Research

The Link Between 9/11 and Cancer Still Isn’t Entirely Clear

National 9/11 Memorial Museum
People visit the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City on May 25, 2014. Cem Ozdel—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A number of complicating factors and delayed data make conclusions difficult to draw

The New York Post reported Sunday that the number of cancer cases among 9/11 first respondents had more than doubled in the past year, from 1,140 to over 2,500. However, to scientists who specialize in analyzing such data, the number of cases cannot ever tell the full story.

Dr. Roberto Lucchini is an epidemiologist and director of the World Trade Center Health Program Data Center at Mount Sinai Hospital, which treats and researches the police officers, construction workers, sanitation workers and iron workers who were among the first respondents on 9/11. To Lucchini, the number of observed cancer cases among these patients cannot be significant until compared to the number of expected cancer cases.

“I don’t think there’s a double of cases one year to the other,” Lucchini told TIME. “When you compare one year to the other, you have to be careful and try to understand what you are comparing. If you don’t compare correctly, you can come up with information that is not exactly true.”

“I don’t think they compared like-with-like which is what you normally do in epidemiology,” adds Dr. Billy Holden, a deputy director of the data center. “I don’t know how they came to the conclusion that there was a doubling.”

Mount Sinai has a record of 1,646 confirmed cancers from 2002 to present-day among the over 30,000 first respondents that they oversee. The hospital’s cases are reviewed and certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Meanwhile, the public registry—which also collects data on these cases—has confirmed 1,172 cancers among Mount Sinai patients, but the registry’s number only represents data through the year 2010, which may account for the difference.

“That’s the latest that we have in reliable data that we can use,” Holden says. “The delay is coming from the registries themselves. It takes them a long time to get the data.”

According to a press release from Mount Sinai, “analysis of available data through 2010 shows that there is an approximately 20% increase in cancer incidence in 9/11 rescue and recovery workers compared to the general population, with a particular increase in thyroid cancer, prostate cancer, myeloma, and leukemia.”

This elevated incidence rate could result from the high exposure to carcinogens that many first respondents endured. However, even this number is subject to question due to a number of complicating factors, including over-diagnosis of certain cancers—such as thyroid and prostate—and questionably reliable data for the general population.

“Over-diagnosis means you’re just screening for cancers, and you pick up cancers that in the normal course of things would never cause symptoms and would never cause death,” Holden says. “The screening for thyroid and prostate cancer is picking up these really non-malignant cancers that don’t do anything.”

Another complicating factor is the continued aging of the first respondents. Epidemiologists would expect the number of observed cancer cases among this population to increase over the coming years regardless because everyone’s risk of cancer rises with time. “Numbers are interesting, but they’re not revealing because we have to look at the rates,” Holden says. “Looking at numbers themselves doesn’t mean anything. You have to put them in a certain context.”

The search for a similar context alone can result in frustration for researchers. As so many residents of New York need not be reminded, 9/11 is an event that stands alone in our history.

“There’s nothing like this in the whole history of the world,” Lucchini says. “We can think about Chernobyl or Fukushima, but this is a totally different situation here… So for us to compare this to other studies and other experiences is quite difficult.”

Lucchini adds, “We are doing as much as we can.”

When it comes to the men and women who first responded on that fateful day, the question remains of how much can ever be enough.

TIME Pregnancy

The Connection Between Parks and Healthier Pregnancy

Trees can do a lot of good for your health, from lowering stress to encouraging you to spend more time outdoors exercising. But can it help expectant moms have healthier babies?

What mother-to-be doesn’t do her best to nurture her still-developing baby so he or she can be ready for the world after nine months? Eating right, exercising, and avoiding extreme amounts of stress are just some of the ways that expectant mothers can cocoon their babies in the healthiest environment possible. And now scientists say there’s another thing pregnant women can do to help their babies to emerge from the womb at a healthy weight.

Living near green spaces – parks, gardens, and even cemeteries – is associated with fewer low birth weight babies, according to a study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine. An international group of researchers analyzed data from nearly 40,000 singleton births in Tel Aviv, Israel from 2002 to 2006 and matched the mother’s address at the time of delivery with satellite images of the landscape to assess their relative “green-ness.” Women who lived in areas with more access to parks or gardens or green spaces were less likely to have children with low birth weight, a risk factor that can contribute to respiratory conditions, intestinal disorders and bleeding in the brain as well as more long term health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, bone disorders and possibly autism.

Because greener regions tend to be associated with higher socioeconomic status and more maternal education, both factors that also affect the rate of low birth weight, the researchers also adjusted for the effect of socioeconomic status, and still found an effect of the greener environments. But they did find a stronger association between less green space and more low-birth-weight babies among those in lower socioeconomic groups, which could reflect the influence of other factors, such as less healthy behaviors in those populations and greater exposure to air pollution, stress and other environmental factors that can influence pregnancy outcomes.

So living near parks alone can’t prevent low-birth-weight babies, but the findings suggest that it couldn’t hurt. And the authors note that other studies hints at why – being near parks may encourage physical activity and promote more social interactions that can provide support to relieve stress and depression. Green spaces also tend to have lower levels of pollution and other potentially harmful environmental compounds that have been linked to poor fetal development.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Here’s What Happened When I Tried a Children’s Weight-Loss App

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Michael Hevesy—Getty Images

A new Silicon Valley startup is giving kids a way to manage their eating habits on that smartphone they're glued to all the time anyway

I’m seeing red everywhere—not because I have an anger management problem but because I’ve been using Kurbo, a new app designed to help kids lose weight. And as with many things aimed at children (See: remote control cars, trampolines, songs from Frozen), adults may find themselves loving the app, too.

Kurbo is built on a “traffic light” program that has roots in research conducted decades ago, and which the founders licensed from Stanford University. Here’s how it works: Foods packed with calories, whether an ice cream sundae or bagel, are classified as red-light. Foods that you should approach with caution, like pasta and whole wheat bread, are yellow. And the go-crazy-have-all-you-want things, like broccoli or mushrooms, are green.

Kids are instructed to log everything they eat in terms of portions—and a portion, a welcome video explains, is generally the size of their fist (or open palm if the food is flat like a pizza). Users are given an automatically generated budget of reds they can have each day, and that budget can quickly become a backdrop in your mind that affects decisions you weren’t thinking much about before.

Once I found out that each slice of sourdough bread was a red and whole wheat was yellow, I started choosing wheat for my sandwiches—because the difference, one I knew about but brushed off before, was hardly worth two of my precious reds. I didn’t pick at a bowl of olives at a restaurant this past weekend, something I usually wouldn’t have even registered, because I wanted to spend that red on a beer. I can no longer justify the guacamole by telling myself that avocados are full of “good fat,” because good or bad, those babies are red. Nuts? Red. Cheese? Red. Light cheese? Beautiful yellow. (Nota bene: Eating more than two servings of any yellow in a single sitting also starts counting as a red.) There is no calorie counting or quibbling.

The downside of being so simple is that the app is inevitably reductive. If you just have a few bacon bits on a salad, you might not have a whole portion, and there’s no way to log that—and almost any nutritionist worth their salt would agree that some of the “red” foods, like the aforementioned avocados I’m suddenly abstaining from, are healthy in moderation. Also, many foods are nowhere to be found in the app’s limited (though expanding) catalog. Expecting kids to break down a dish of beef and broccoli from the local Chinese joint into individual components—when it’s unclear what those components actually are beyond beef and broccoli—is unrealistic. And while foods like nuts and even cheese are high when it comes to energy density, they have good qualities, too.

That said, the simplicity had its benefits. I found, for instance, that because I wanted to be confident in my color-logging, I’d opt for foods like a salad for which I chose the ingredients instead of one that was prepackaged. “It’s a very important behavioral principle: If you can’t count it, you can’t keep track of it, and if you can’t keep track of it, you can’t change it,” says Tom Robinson, professor of pediatrics at Stanford and director of the university’s Center for Healthy Weight. People are generally lousy at counting calories, he says, and the calorie count on a menu might be far from what actually shows up on your plate. “If you’re trying to get from 40 to 35 red lights a week,” he says, “you’re going to be focusing more on the overall choices you’re making.”

Kurbo co-founder Joanna Strober conceived of the app when she was trying to help her son to lose weight. As they visited doctors, she found they had no tools that would fit naturally into his daily life. “Okay, your child is overweight. But what do you do next?” she says. One thing she did was discover Stanford’s program for treating childhood obesity, which has a solid track record but is only available to a couple hundred families per year for a hefty sum ($3,500 for six months of weekly visits). She also found that apps marketed to the 18-and-older crowd had proved effective. So Strober tried to take every element from Stanford that she could and pack it into the Kurbo app for kids, with the help of $5.8 million in venture capital funding, making a similar system more available to the masses.

For $10 per month, a whole family gets access to the app, which comes with virtual coaching, automated notifications that nudge users to log more regularly or congratulate them for staying within their budget of reds. For $75 per month, one person in the family also gets a weekly call from a nutritional coach, some of whom have come from the Stanford program. And if that price point still sounds high, don’t despair: The company is currently in talks with insurance companies about getting coverage for usage of the app. (For the whole family to get access, users need to sign up through Kurbo’s website; an Apple app is available now, an Android app is expected in September.)

Through the Stanford program, more than 80% of kids reduce the percentage that they’re overweight, and more than 75% of overweight parents lose weight, too. In Kurbo’s beta program, which included kids ages 8 to 18, more than 85% of participants reduced their body mass index over 10 weeks.

One of the beta users was Tiana Lepera, a 14-year-old from Ogdensburg, NJ. She’s lost 10 lbs. since she starting seeing the world in red, yellow and green. “Even when we go to restaurants, we know that certain foods would be red lights, yellow lights and green lights,” she says. “If I don’t eat the bread that will be one less red light. You always think about it. It changes the way you’re thinking about food.” Her mom has meanwhile lost 29 lbs. and gone off blood pressure medication she’s had to take for the past 14 years. “Everything,” Keshia says, “corresponds to how many red lights you eat.”

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