TIME vaccines

Very Good and Very Bad News in the Vaccine Wars

Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines
Just say yes.—but too many Americans say no to vaccines Steve Debenport; Getty Images

Like any trench war, the fight to protect America's kids against disease is proceeding only inch by inch. A new report shows why there's reason for hope—and reason for worry

It’s just as well that no one knows the names of the 17,253 sets of parents in California who have opted not to have their children vaccinated, citing “philosophic” reasons for declining the shots. The same is true of the anonymous 3,097 in Colorado who have made the same choice—giving their far smaller state the dubious distinction of being dead last among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the simple business of protecting their children against disease.

On the other hand, kudos to you, Mississippi, for finishing number one—with an overall kindergartener vaccination rate in the past school year of 99.7%—and to you, Louisiana, Texas and Utah, for finishing not far behind. Your children, by this measure at least, are the safest and healthiest in the country.

These and other findings were part of the alternately reassuring and deeply disturbing survey from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), looking at vaccination coverage for more than 4.25 million kindergarteners and the opt-out rates for more than 3.9 million in the 2013-2014 school year

The report’s top line number seems encouraging. The national compliance rate for the three major vaccines covered in the survey ranged from 93.3% (for chicken pox) to 94.7% (measles, mumps, rubella, or MMR) to 95% (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis).

But even those numbers don’t mean America has aced the test. Vaccination rates need to reach or exceed 95%, depending on the disease, to maintain herd immunity—the protection afforded by vaccinated people to those few who can’t be vaccinated, by giving the virus too few ways to body-surf its way across a population until it finds someone who’s vulnerable. So while a 90% vaccination rate might look like an A, it in fact may be no better than a middling C.

And in some parts of the country, the numbers are much, much worse. As I reported in TIME’s Oct. 6 issue, vaccination refusal tends to be a phenomenon of the wealthier, better educated, politically bluer parts of the country—the northeast, the Pacific coast and pockets around major universities. Those are communities in which folks know just enough to convince themselves that they know it all—which means they know better than the doctors, scientists and other members of medical community at large, who have overwhelmingly shown that vaccines are safe and effective.

That’s part of the reason New York City’s elite private schools have vaccination rates far lower than the city’s public schools, and why, according to a shocking story by the Hollywood Reporter, some schools in the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles have a lower vaccination rate than in South Sudan.

Digging deeper into the MMWR report, there are other, broader causes for worry. There are the 26 states plus the District of Columbia that don’t meet the Department of Health and Human Services’ guidelines of 95% coverage for the MMR vaccine. There are the 37 states that don’t even meet the CDC’s standards for properly gathering data on vaccination rates in the first place. And there are the 11 states with opt-out rates of 4% or higher.

The anti-vaccine crowd frames the refusers as part of a brave vanguard of parents who won’t be hectored into getting their children protections that they, the parents, have decided are useless or dangerous. But it’s worth remembering what the world looked like in the era before vaccines. And you don’t have to work too hard to do that, because you know what it looked like? It looked like West Africa today, where people are being infected with the Ebola virus at a rate of 1,000 new cases per week—on target to be 10,000 by December—where entire families and indeed entire villages are dying agonizing deaths, and where whole populations would line up by the millions for the protection a vaccine would offer.

Vaccine refusal is increasingly the indulgence of the privileged. And it is, as the Ebola crisis shows, the indulgence of the foolish, too.

TIME space

Spacecraft Provides NASA With Data That Teaches Us About The Sun

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory provided the outer image of a coronal mass ejection on the surface of the sun on May 9, 2014. Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory/NASA

Hot off the presses

A detailed new image of the sun is providing NASA with information about the sun’s atmosphere.

The photos, taken by NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectograph (IRIS), help explain how the sun’s atmosphere is hotter than its surface, what causes solar wind, and what mechanisms accelerate particles that power solar flares, NASA said in a release.

Some of the more noteworthy findings identified heat pockets of 200,000 degrees Fahrenheit that exist in the solar atmosphere, which scientists refer to as “heat bombs.”

TIME space

When You’ve Been To Pluto, What Do You Do for an Encore?

Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun
Next on the itinerary: A Kuiper Belt object and the distant candle of the sun NASA

Just because you've reached the edge of the solar system doesn't mean you've run out of worlds to visit. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is set to make that point

When it blasted off for Pluto back in 2006, NASA’s New Horizons probe was poised to achieve several major milestones at once. It would be visiting the last planet still unexplored at close quarters (and yes, Pluto was still a planet when the mission began). It would also be the first mission to explore a class of planet vastly different from the Solar System’s rocky inner worlds, and also from the gas giants further out. Even after it was demoted to “dwarf planet,” Pluto represented the nearest of the ice worlds that lurk at the edges of the Sun’s influence. Understanding their true nature called for a close encounter—and New Horizons was designed to provide it.

But once the probe whips past Pluto and its moon Charon next July, it will still have functioning instruments and fuel to burn. And now, says NASA, it may have someplace to go and another scientific milestone to achieve. An intensive search with the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed three icy bodies more or less along New Horizons’ post-Pluto path and a billion miles (1.6 billion km) further out. Sometime in 2018 or 2019 the probe could be getting a close look at one of these so-called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBO)—a primordial remnant left from the very earliest days of the Solar System.

“The objects Hubble has identified are much smaller than Pluto,” says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist with the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, CO, and New Horizons’ Principal Investigator. “They’re the building blocks Pluto was made of.”

Hubble got this discovery in just under the wire. The rocket burn that will readjust New Horizons trajectory to intercept one of the KBO’s won’t happen until after the Pluto encounter. But in order to calculate that complicated maneuver, ground controllers need to know precisely how the KBO’s themselves are moving. “We need to make a series of observations,” says Stern, “to connect the dots.” And if they didn’t have a first set of observations by now, they wouldn’t have enough dots to connect.

In one sense, researchers have already gotten a close look at a KBO: Europe’s Rosetta probe went into orbit around a comet in August, with plans to set down a lander on its surface on November 9—and a comet is essentially a KBO that has wandered into the inner Solar System.

But that means it’s been exposed to the Sun’s heat, so unlike its cousins further out, it’s not truly primordial. Beyond that, these three new objects are between 15 and 35 miles (24 and 56 km) across. That’s about ten times bigger and a thousand times more massive than Rosetta’s comet, while still a thousand times less massive than Pluto. Whichever KBO New Horizons visits will therefore fill in a huge gap, helping scientists understand how Pluto itself formed.

It will, that is, if NASA approves the extended mission, funding the probe for longer than was originally planned. That kind of second act is not unusual—Hubble itself has had its mission extended several times, and so did the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. It’s not guaranteed, though. “We have to make a proposal,” says Stern, “but at least we now have something concrete to propose.”

Even if the mission is green-lit and that second encounter comes off, New Horizons still might not be done. “We’re going to keep looking for other KBO’s even farther out,” says Stern. If they’re close enough to New Horizons’ path, and if there’s enough fuel left for another trajectory adjustment, next July’s Pluto flyby could be just the start of an extraordinary series of close encounters with the most remote colonies in the Sun’s cosmic empire.

TIME Health Care

The Price of Staying Alive For the Next 3 Hours

Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price
Stayin' alive—and cheap at the price ZU_09; Getty Images

A new study suggests a little spending now can buy you a lot of time later

How much do you reckon you’d pay not to be dead three hours from now? That probably depends. If you’re 25 and healthy, a whole lot. If you’re 95 and sickly, maybe not so much. But for people in one part of the world—the former East Germany—the cost has been figured out, and it’s surprisingly cheap: three hours of life will set you back (or your government, really) just one euro, or a little below a buck-thirty at current exchange rates.

That’s the conclusion of a new study out of Germany’s Max Planck Institute, and it says a lot about the power of a little bit of money now to save a lot of suffering later—with implications for all manner of public health challenges, including the current Ebola crisis.

The new findings are a result of one of the greatest, real-time longitudinal studies ever conducted, one that began the moment the Berlin Wall fell, on Nov. 9 1989. Before that year, there were two Germanys not just politically, but epidemiologically. Life expectancy in the western half of the country was 76 years; in the poorer, sicker east, it was 73.5. But after unification began, social spending in the East began rising, from the equivalent of €2,100 per person per year to €5,100 by the year 2000. In that same period, the difference in lifespan across the old divide went in the opposite direction, shrinking from 2.5 years to just one year as the east Germans gained more time. Crunch those numbers and you get the three extra hours of extra life per person per euro per year.

“Without the pension payments of citizens in east and west converging to equivalent levels,” said Max Planck demographer Tobias Vogt in a statement, “the gap in life expectancy could not have been closed.” Increased public spending, Vogt adds, is often framed as an unfortunate knock-on effect of longer life. “But in contrast,” he says, “our analysis shows that public spending can also be seen as an investment in longer life.”

The idea that generous, tactical spending now can be both a money-saver and lifesaver is one that health policy experts tirelessly make—and that people in charge of approving the budgets too often ignore. Bill Gates often makes the point that $1 billion spent to eradicate polio over the next few years will save $50 billion over the next 20 years, not just because there will no longer be any cases of the disease to treat, but because the global vaccination programs which are necessary just to contain the virus can be stopped altogether when that virus is no more.

As TIME reported in September, British inventor Marc Koska made a splash at the TEDMed conference in Washington DC when he unveiled his K1 syringe—an auto-destruct needle that locks after it’s used just once and breaks if too much force is used to pull the plunger back out. That prevents needle re-use—and that in turn not only reduces blood-borne pathogens from being spread, it does so at a saving. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), $1 spent on K1 syringes saves $14.57 in health care costs down the line—or $280 for a $20 order of the shots.

All across the health care spectrum, such leveraging is possible. Critics of the Affordable Care Act have slammed the law for the cost of the preventative services it provides, and while it’s way too early to determine exactly how successful the law will be, the encouraging stabilization in the growth of health costs suggests that something, at least, is working.

Global health officials are making a similar, though more urgent, preventative argument concerning the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Americans are rightly jumpy over the few cases that have landed on our shores, but the 1,000 new infections per week that are occurring in the hot-spot nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone make our concerns look small. Frighteningly, according to the WHO’s newest projections, that figure will explode to 10,000 cases per week by December if the resources are not deployed to contain the epidemic fast.

“We either stop Ebola now,” WHO’s Anthony Banbury said in a stark presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 14, “or we face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan.”

Suiting up and wading into the Ebola infection zone is a decidedly bigger and scarier deal than spending an extra euro on public health or an extra dollar for a new syringe. But the larger idea of intervention today preventing far larger suffering tomorrow remains one of medicine’s enduring truths. We lose sight of it at our peril.

TIME animals

Meet the Lumbering, Quarter-Ton, Extinct Kangaroo

Don't call me Joey: Not a kangaroo—but not not one either.
Don't call me Joey: Not a kangaroo—but not not one either. Nobu Tamura—Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the most fascinating animals are the ones that are no longer with us. The oddly named sthenurine is no exception.

Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, kangaroos gotta hop—unless you’re talking about the eight-foot-tall, quarter-ton, kangaroos known as sthenurines (and no, that is not a typo). These distant cousins of modern red and gray kangaroos went extinct about 30,000 years ago, and their fossils weren’t discovered until the 1800s. When the species at last came to light, it was not easy to take seriously, resembling nothing so much as cartoon versions of its modern cousins. “They were short faced,” says Brown University biologist Christine Janis, “not long-faced like modern kangaroos, and the smallest of them were as big as the largest modern kangaroos. It wasn’t clear,” she adds, “how they could hop at that size.”

And according to a new paper Janis just published in the journal PLoS ONE, they probably couldn’t. Instead, she and two co-authors conclude after several years of investigation involving more than 140 skeletons from kangaroos and related species such as wallabees, the sthenurines walked upright on two legs.

The evidence comes from virtually everywhere across the creatures’ anatomy. Their teeth, the scientists observe, look more suited to browsing on trees and bushes than nibbling on grass as modern ‘roos do. That implies the ability to stand upright on two legs to reach the branches.

“They also had flared hipbones,” says Janis, with ample room for large gluteal muscles that would have permitted them to put weight on one leg at a time, something today’s kangaroos never do. Modern kangaroos amble around on all fours—or fives, if you count the tail, which they use for balance—when they’re browsing. When they want to go fast, they hop.

That’s possible only because they have flexible backs and stiff, substantial tails, which sthenurines lacked. The sthenurine hands, moreover, were unsuitable for bearing their weight. “They would have had trouble walking on all fours,” says Janis. The animals’ very bulk would have put terrible strains on their tendons if they even tried to hop.

“Some have argued that the sthenurines might have had thicker tendons to compensate,” Janis says, “but that would have made the tendons less elastic. It just seems biomechanically unlikely.” Any arguments about tendons and other soft tissues are somewhat speculative in ancient specimens, of course. “Imagine that we only knew elephants as fossils,” says Janis. “How would we know for sure they had trunks?”

The other evidence all points in one direction, however. As Janis straightforwardly puts, “just about everything we looked at made us go, ‘oh, that fits in.'” In the often elegant study of anatomy, the answer that fits is usually the answer that’s right.

TIME space

The Rosetta Spacecraft Took an Epic Selfie With a Comet

Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta’s Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a ‘selfie’ at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on Oct. 7, 2014 and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 14 m-long solar wings, with the comet in the background.
Using the CIVA camera on Rosetta’s Philae lander, the spacecraft have snapped a ‘selfie’ at comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from a distance of about 16 km from the surface of the comet. The image was taken on Oct. 7, 2014 and captures the side of the Rosetta spacecraft and one of Rosetta’s 14 m-long solar wings, with the comet in the background. ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Mission Selfie: Accomplished

Europe’s Rosetta spacecraft took a selfie published Tuesday that is, quite literally, out of this world.

Rosetta’s mission is to land on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The spacecraft is very close to its target, enough that the comet appears in the background of this image only 16km away.

Rosetta, dubbed Europe’s “comet chaser,” went into space in 2004. It had many things on its to-do list, including eventually landing on 67P. But for now, Mission Selfie accomplished.

TIME Research

Those Pesky House Flies May Actually Improve Our Health

House Fly
Getty Images

According to new research in 'Genome Biology'

The house fly is a rarely celebrated insect, but new research published Tuesday finally provides the pest with some positive recognition.

The house fly (Musca domestica) has a genome that could actually give scientists insight into pathogen immunity, helping humans live healthier lives, researchers write in the journal Genome Biology. And it’s all because of their, well, gross-factor. Since the house fly lives on animal and human waste, according to Science Daily, “[t]hey are an important species for scientific study because of their roles as waste decomposers and as carriers of over 100 human diseases, including typhoid, tuberculosis and worms.”

Their immunity system genes can be studied to help humans be healthier in toxic and disease causing environments, the researchers add, and detoxification genes could help scientists find better ways to manage toxic environments.

TIME animals

Newly Discovered Snail Species Named in Honor of Marriage Equality

The Aegista diversifamilia has both male and female sex organs

A newly discovered species of snail has been named in honor of marriage equality.

The snail, Aegista diversifamilia, which has both male and female sex organs, “represents the diversity of sex orientation in the animal kingdom,” the BBC reports. The snail is common in eastern Taiwan, where same-sex marriage is illegal, according to research published in the journal ZooKeys.

“When we were preparing the manuscript, it was a period when Taiwan and many other countries and states were struggling for the recognition of same-sex marriage rights,” said Dr. Yen-Chang Lee, the first person to suggest the snail might be its own species and not another, similar species of snail previously mistaken for it.”We decided that maybe this is a good occasion to name the snail to remember the struggle for the recognition of same-sex marriage rights.”

Lee, from Taipei’s Academia Sinica, first noticed that snails of the Aegista subchinensis species were very different in the eastern part of the country in 2003 before taking part in a detailed study of the “new” snail with researchers from National Taiwan Normal University.

[BBC]

 

 

TIME space

Think You Could Live on Mars? Think Again

Mars
Getty Images

A new analysis of Mars One's plans to colonize the Red Planet finds that the explorers would begin dying within 68 days of touching down

Hear that? That’s the sound of 200,000 reservations being reconsidered. Two hundred thousand is the announced number of intrepid folks who signed up last year for the chance to be among the first Earthlings to colonize Mars, with flights beginning as early as 2024. The catch: the trips will be one way, as in no return ticket, as in farewell friends, family, charbroiled steaks and vodka martinis, to say nothing of such everyday luxuries as modern hospitals and, you know, breathable air.

But the settlers in Jamestown weren’t exactly volunteering for a weekend in Aspen either, and in both cases, the compensations—being the first people on a distant shore—seemed attractive enough. Now, however, the Mars plan seems to have run into a teensy snag. According to a new analysis by a team of grad students at MIT, the new arrivals would begin dying within just 68 days of touching down.

The organizers of the burn-your-boats expedition is a group called Mars One, headed by Bas Lansdorp, a Dutch entrepreneur and mechanical engineer. As Lansdorp sees things, habitat modules and other hardware would be sent to the Red Planet in advance of any astronauts, who would arrive in four-person crews at two-year intervals—when Mars and Earth make their closest approach, which holds the outbound journey to a brief (relatively speaking) eight months. The crew-selection process would be part of (yes) a sponsored reality show, which would ensure a steady flow of cash—and since the settlers would grow their own food onsite, there would be little to carry along with them. All that would keep the overall cost of the project to a shoestring (relative again) $6 billion.

So what could go wrong? That’s what the four MIT students set out to find out, and the short answer is: a lot.

The biggest problem, the students discovered, concerns that business of breathable air. One of the things that’s always made Earth such a niftily habitable place to live is that what animals exhale, plants inhale, and vice versa. Since the Martian astronauts and their crops would be living and respiring in the same enclosed habitats, a perfect closed loop should result in which we provide them all the carbon dioxide they need and they return the favor with oxygen.

Only it doesn’t, the MIT students found. The problem begins with the lettuce and the wheat, both of which are considered essential crops. As lettuce matures, peaking about 30 days after planting, it pushes the 02 level past what’s known as .3 molar fractions, which, whatever it means, doesn’t sound terribly dangerous — except it’s also the point at which the threat of fire rises to unacceptable levels. That risk begins to tail off as the crop is harvested and eaten, but it explodes upward again, far past the .3 level, at 68 days when the far gassier wheat matures.

A simple answer would be simply to vent a little of the excess O2 out, which actually could work, except the venting apparatus is not able to distinguish one gas from another. That means that nitrogen—which would, as on Earth, make up the majority of the astronauts’ atmosphere—would be lost too. That, in turn, would lower the internal pressure to unsurvivable levels—and that’s what gets your 68-day doomsday clock ticking.

There is some question too about whether the hardware that Mars One is counting on would even be ready for prime time. The mission planners make much of the fact that a lot of what they’re planning to use on Mars has already been proven aboard the International Space Station (ISS), which is true enough. But that hardware is built to operate in microgravity—effectively zero g—while Mars’s gravity is nearly 40% of Earth’s. So a mechanical component that would weigh 10 lbs. on Earth can be designed with little concern about certain kinds of wear since it would weigh 0 lbs. in orbit. But on Mars it would be 4 lbs., and that can make all the difference.

“The introduction of a partial gravity environment,” the grad students write, “will inevitably lead to different [environmental] technologies.”

For that and other reasons, technical breakdowns are a certainty. The need for replacement parts is factored into Mars One’s plans, but probably not in the way that they should be. According to the MIT team, over the course of 130 months, spare parts alone would gobble up 62% of the payload space on resupply missions, making it harder to get such essentials as seeds, clothes and medicine—to say nothing of other crew members—launched on schedule.

Then too, there is the question of habitat crowding. It’s easy to keep people alive if you feed them, say, a single calorie-dense food product every day. But energy bars forever means quickly losing your marbles, which is why Mars One plans for a variety of crops—just not a big enough variety. “Given that the crop selection will significantly influence the wellbeing of the crew for the entirety of their lives after reaching Mars,” the authors write, “we opt for crop variety over minimizing growth area.”

Then there is the question of cost—there’s not a space program in history whose initial price tag wasn’t badly lowballed—to say nothing of maintaining that biennial launch schedule, to say nothing of the cabin fever that could soon enough set the settlers at one another’s throats. Jamestown may not have been a picnic, but when things got to be too much you could always go for a walk by the creek.

No creeks here, nor much of anything else either. Human beings may indeed colonize Mars one day, and it’s a very worthy goal. But as with any other kind of travel, the best part of going is often coming home.

Read next: 20 Breathtaking Images Of The Earth As Seen From Space

TIME climate change

NASA: September Was Warmest on Global Record

NOAA predicts an El Niño will start by the end of the year

This September was the warmest on record since 1880–the year scientists first began to track global data on temperatures.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s announcement clips on the heels of what was also the warmest August on record, which NASA said suggests an unfortunate trend in global heating.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration anticipates that an El Niño will start by the end of the year, due to warmer temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, and continue into spring 2015. An El Niño can have devastating impact across the globe, with repercussions that include abnormal temperatures and extreme weather. The last strong El Niño occurred in 1997-98.

[Discover]

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