TIME Research

Study Links Widely Used Pesticides to Antibiotic Resistance

Tractor and crop sprayer spraying in field
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Glyphosate, 2,4-D, and dicamba found to affect bacteria in ways that could promote resistance to common antibiotics

This has not been a good week for glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup and other herbicides. On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it had classified glyphosate, the United States’ most widely used pesticide, as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Now, the chemical has another strike against it. A new study published by the American Society of Microbiology’s journal mBio has linked glyphosate and two other widely-used herbicides–2,4-D and dicamba–to one of the most pressing public health crises of our time: antibiotic resistance.

This study found that exposure to these herbicides in their commercial forms changed the way bacteria responded to a number of antibiotics, including ampicillin, ciprofloxacin, and tetracycline–drugs widely used to treat a range of deadly diseases.

Dicamba, 2,4-D, and glyphosate have been in use for decades, so why have their antibacterial-resistance effects not been documented before? As the study’s lead author, Jack Heinemann, professor of genetics at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, explains, when pesticides are tested for adverse effects, “it’s the lethal toxicity that people focus on.” In other words, how much of the chemical will kill an organism.

“What makes our study different, is that it is looking at a sub-lethal effect,” says Heinemann. “The effect we see requires that the bacteria stay alive.”

Previous studies done by other researchers have found that substances chemically similar to dicamba and 2,4-D can cause antibiotic resistance, Heinemann explains. So he and his colleagues decided to investigate whether these herbicides would produce similar effects. They added glyphosate to the study because it is chemically unlike the other two. But, to their surprise, it also produced some antibiotic resistance.

Heinemann explains that because these herbicides are not “supertoxic” to the bacteria the study tested—E. coli and Salmonellathey are not killed outright at levels typically used to kill weeds. Instead, the bacteria stay alive while activating proteins known as efflux pumps in order to rid themselves of toxins. And this defense mechanism can make the bacteria develop resistance to the threat from which it is defending itself.

Scientists know that overuse of antibiotics in humans can decrease their effectiveness. In the same way, says Heinemann, “exposure to these pesticides make the pathogens stronger.”

Although this study only looked at two laboratory strains of human pathogens, the antibiotics examined represent what he calls “broad classes” of drugs we’ve come to depend on to fight infections and the herbicides are three of the most-used worldwide.

Heinemann also notes that the different pesticides produced a variety of responses. While all three produced an antibacterial-resistant response to some of the antibiotics, some of the combinations his team tested produced no response and some increasedthe antibiotic’s effect.

Although the study is likely to be seen as controversial by some, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth assistant professor of biology, Dr. Mark Silby says it “followed established protocols” and the existing scientific literature supports its findings.

“This is a very carefully designed study,” says Dr. Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union. “It’s incredibly important work showing the complexity of an effect that hadn’t been thought about before.” The mechanisms by which the bacteria respond to toxics–in this case herbicides–are already well-known, Hansen explains. What’s new and important is looking at non-lethal levels of exposure in combination with the antibiotics.

The weed-killers used in the study were purchased at a local store and were used at levels specified in use directions, which means the scientists were testing chemicals actually in use worldwide rather than a special laboratory sample of the active compound.

How could any of this affect people?

“These herbicides are now used at such a scale that we can almost use the term ubiquitous,” says Heinemann. For one, glyphosate is used on about 94 percent of the soybeans and 89 percent of the corn grown in the U.S, while 2,4-D is the third-most widely used herbicide in the U.S., while dicamba ranks fifth in use worldwide.

The levels at which the researchers saw effects were higher than the residues allowed on food, but below what is often used in rural settings, says Heinemann.

The results of Heinemann’s study suggest there is probably a small chance that exposure through food would produce these effects, but they could be a concern in areas where the pesticides are being applied, says Hansen. Thus, the people most likely to be affected are farmers, farmworkers, and other people who live in agricultural communities.

Also to consider is the approval earlier this year of a new pesticide that combines glyphosate and 2,4-D and soybean and cotton seeds genetically engineered to resist dicamba, all of which are expected to increase use of these pesticides.

Pesticide-induced antibiotic resistance could also affect honeybees since many commercial hives are now being treated with antibiotics. It’s possible, Heinemann says, that “comingling of antibiotics and herbicides could be compromising the effectiveness of those antibiotics,” and thus honeybee health.

Meanwhile, Monsanto says it disagrees with WHO’s announcement on glyphosate. “All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health databases ever compiled on an agricultural product,” the company says in a statement on its website.

Neither Monsanto nor other pesticide manufacturers have had the opportunity to respond to the new mBio study. But the Council for Biotechnology Information said on its website “GMO Answers” last month, that glyphosate had once been considered for use as an antibiotic but that “levels needed to kill microbes are relatively high, and resistance can develop readily.” In other words, the phenomenon Heinemann and colleagues observed is not entirely unexpected.

“A jigsaw puzzle is a good metaphor,” for how these effects fit together, says the scientist.

The next steps in this research will be to test additional bacteria and pure samples of the pesticides. But for now, it’s clear that “further work is needed,” says Hansen. “This is something we need to look at as we expand the use of these herbicides.”

This article originally appeared on Civil Eats.

TIME medicine

Many Doctors Don’t Tell Patients They Have Alzheimer’s

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PASIEKA—Getty Images/Science Photo Library RM

It’s hard to believe in today’s era of transparency in modern medicine, but there’s a diagnosis that doctors still try to keep from their patients

In a surprising new survey of patients who were asked about their interactions with their doctors, 45% of people whose doctors treated them for Alzheimer’s never told these patients that they had the degenerative brain disorder.

Led by researchers at the Alzheimer’s Association, the scientists looked at Medicare claim data from 2008 to 2010 for 16,000 people. They were asked, among other things, whether their doctors had ever told them they had Alzheimer’s disease. When the researchers then matched the respondents’ answers to their medical records, and the diagnostic codes that their doctors used to describe their care, only 45% of those who were billed for Alzheimer’s-related care were told by their doctors of their disease.

MORE New Research on Understanding Alzheimer’s

“What struck us was that physicians generally understand the positive benefits of disclosing the diagnosis, and agree with those benefits,” says Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach at the Association, who oversaw the analysis of the survey data. “But many still don’t do disclosure in their own practice.”

One of the few papers investigating the phenomenon of Alzheimer’s diagnoses found that as few as 36% of doctors said they usually told their patients if they had Alzheimer’s. The main reasons for the intentional omission? Fear of causing emotional distress in their patients and the lack of time and resources to fully explain what the diagnosis means. This was true of both primary care doctors as well as neurology specialists who have more expertise in brain-related disorders.

Dr. Robert Wergin, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, advocates for transparency and honesty in disclosing diagnoses to his patients in his practice in Milford, Nebraska. But he understands why many physicians might be reluctant to use the word “Alzheimer’s” with their patients. “Labels are important,” he says. “When I label you and say you’ve got Alzheimer’s disease, then you’re likely to say, ‘Well that’s it for me, I better start looking for nursing homes.’”

MORE This Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Could Be a Game Changer

Alzheimer’s is a challenging diagnosis to make on several levels. First, it can only be definitively diagnosed at autopsy, when doctors can see the hallmark amyloid plaques and tangles that cause the gradual loss of memory and cognitive function. There is no blood test or brain scan that can conclusively tell doctors that a patient does or does not have the condition; while promising versions are being developed, it’s still a diagnosis that doctors make based on reports of the patients’ changing intellectual abilities and on psychiatric tests that aren’t specific for Alzheimer’s.

It’s also difficult to tell patients they likely have Alzheimer’s because there are currently no effective drugs for the disease. Medications can slow the effects of the cognitive decline, but nothing can stop or reverse the march of worsening symptoms. Wergin notes that once a patient is labeled with Alzheimer’s it could, at least before the Affordable Care Act, affect that patient’s ability to get insurance for nursing home care. “Once I label you, it’s in your chart. If an insurance company extracts your data, I’m not going to insure you because you are at higher risk of drawing on your coverage,” he says.

MORE New Test May Predict Alzheimer’s 10 Years Before Diagnosis

Wergin says that doctors may be over-anticipating the emotional distress that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can bring. While the news is certainly difficult, most patients and their caregivers may already be aware that a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer’s may be present. And while there are no treatments that physicians can prescribe for their patients — at least not yet — Fargo and Beth Kallmyer, vice president of constituent services at the Association, note that it’s particularly important for Alzheimer’s patients and their families to know what to expect so they can begin planning. “There might not be a pill that slows the disease down or there might not be cures, but there are things people can do to impact their everyday quality of life,” says Kallmyer. “They can build a care team, and prepare advanced directives. And if a caregiver has knowledge of the disease, they can make things better in the day to day world of the person with the disease. If they don’t know about the diagnosis, they may not get that support.”

MORE Breakthrough Discoveries of Alzheimer’s Genes

But making doctors more comfortable with the diagnosis will take more structural changes in the way we deliver health care. The Alzheimer’s Association is supporting legislation that would reimburse doctors and their staff for a longer discussion about Alzheimer’s and how to plan for the disease. More medical schools are also including discussion about such planning in their curricula, as doctors in coming decades will be increasingly called upon to make this difficult disclosure.

Read next: A Simple 3-Part Test May Predict Alzheimer’s

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TIME medicine

Your Doctor Likely Orders More Tests Than You Actually Need

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Javier Larrea—Getty Images/age fotostock RM

The surprising non-medical reasons why emergency room doctors order too many tests

When you’re rushed to an emergency room, the doctors immediately order a battery of tests to figure out what’s wrong. But while scans and blood draws can tell them an incredible amount about what’s ailing you and the best treatment you should get, study after study shows that all of this testing isn’t actually leading to better care. Now, a new survey of emergency room doctors suggests why.

Of the 435 ER physicians asked about the tests they order for their patients, more than 85% admitted that in general, they call for too many tests, even if they know the results won’t really help them decide how to treat their patients. Reporting in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine, the authors also say that nearly all of the doctors—97%—admitted to personally ordering unnecessary imaging tests.

“So many physicians acknowledged that they ordered tests for no medical reason, which makes it clear that physicians feel enormous pressure to behave in a way they may not want to,” says Dr. Hemal Kanzaria, an emergency room physician at University of California Los Angeles and lead author of the study.

Such unnecessary testing is contributing to an estimated $210 billion in additional health care costs; ideally, appropriately used testing should reduce costs by detecting and diagnosing problems early, so patients can get the right treatments and avoid more expensive care.

The top two reasons the doctors ordered these tests were fear of missing something that would help them diagnose their patients, and protection against malpractice. “The over-testing is not due to lack of knowledge on the physicians’ part or poor medical judgment. It more likely reflects the fact that as a society, we don’t like uncertainty, and that has led to an oversimplification of medical care,” says Kanzaria. “There is the thought that if there is any possibility of disease, then we should do something about it, and if there is any doubt, we should test. If the test helps one patient, then everyone should get the test.” So even when doctors know that a test won’t add much information to their treatment decision, they’re more concerned that the patient will want to know why the test wasn’t performed.

Such decision-making behavior won’t change until more systemic problems in the way health care is delivered and paid for are addressed, the study authors say. They note that the way physicians are held accountable for medical decisions also needs to change, and patients need to become more involved in treatment decisions. That way, they say, the cultural expectation that doctors can never get a diagnosis wrong may start to fade. Doctors also need to be better trained and educated about the latest technologies and which patients will benefit most from them, they add.

The doctors also said that they’d welcome patients becoming more involved in the decision-making process. There isn’t data suggesting that such shared decision-making would reduce unnecessary testing, but if doctor and patient are more open about the reasons for testing or not testing, then perhaps fewer tests might be done for non-medical reasons.

“We need to be more cognizant of the culture within and outside of medicine that contributes to over-testing, and we need to address these systems and drivers,” says Kanzaria. “That’s what I hope will result from this work.”

Read next: Ebola Continues to Punish Survivors One Year After Start of Outbreak

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TIME medicine

There Could Soon Be a Pill to Make Us More Compassionate

How brain chemistry influences compassion

Biology may have a lot to do with our behavior, especially in social situations. And that means our social interactions could be manipulated by a pill.

That’s what a new study, published in the journal Current Biology, suggests. A group led by researchers at University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco shows that by manipulating a brain chemical, people can become more compassionate and act in prosocial ways to equalize differences.

In the study, 35 men and women visited the labs two times; each time they were randomly given a pill that keeps levels of dopamine, which is involved in reward and satisfaction, or a placebo. Neither the participants nor the scientists knew which pills were given when. The volunteers were then asked to divide money between themselves and a strangers.

When the researchers analyzed the results, they found that when the people were given the dopamine drug, they were more likely to share the money equitably compared to when they took the placebo.

The results certainly aren’t the answer to promoting more compassion in society, but they do hint that behaviors like social interaction might be affected by changing basic biological systems in the brain. “We have taken an important step toward learning how our aversion to inequity is influenced by our brain chemistry,” Ignacio Sáez, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said in a statement. “Studies in the past decade have shed light on the neural circuits that govern how we behave in social situations. What we show here is one brain ‘switch’ we can affect.”

Read next: 14 Emotional Dispatches From Key Ebola Fighters

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TIME medicine

5 Things to Know on World Down Syndrome Day

World Down Syndrome Day 2014 Celebrated in Indonesia
Robertus Pudyanto—Getty Images A girl with Down syndrome takes part in planting a tree during World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, 2014 in Surabaya, Indonesia.

From how it happens to what it does

Saturday is World Down Syndrome Day, a day recognized each year by the United Nations to raise awareness about the genetic disease. Here are five things you need to know about Down syndrome.

1. Down syndrome is caused by an extra set of chromosome 21. Every cell in the body has 23 pairs of chromosomes, one from each parent, but Down occurs when one parent contributes extra genetic material. Older mothers have a higher chance of having a Down baby.

2. More than 400,000 people live with Down in the U.S.

3. The most common symptoms of Down include cognitive delays, low muscle tone and a small stature.

4. People with Down can lead full, independent lives. They are, however, at higher risk of developing heart, respiratory problems and certain cancers.

5. People with Down are living much longer than in the past, thanks to treatments for their health issues. While the average life expectancy in 1983 was 25 years, today it is 60 years.

TIME Cancer

Pesticides Used in Pet Collars and Home Sprays Connected to Cancer

A World Health Organization group says five pesticides may be cancer-causing

Five pesticides used in pet collars and home insect sprays could cause cancer in humans, health officials said in a new report.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), evaluates studies on chemical compounds and ranks them by the strength of evidence of their cancer-causing effects. The new report, appearing in the journal Lancet Oncology, classifies glyphosate, malathion and diazinon as probable carcinogens. For these, there is only limited evidence that the compounds can cause cancer in animals or people.

Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide around the world, and its use has increased since crops have been genetically modified to resist the spray. It has been detected in low amounts in water, air and food. Malathion is used to control insects in both agriculture and in homes, and people can be exposed via sprayings and through food. Diazinon is used in more limited quantities in agriculture and homes, after regulations restricted spraying in the U.S. and Europe.

The pesticides tetrachlorvinphos and parathion received a slightly stronger designation as possible carcinogens because there is more evidence for their cancer-causing effects in animals, but still little information on their effect on people. Both of these possible carcinogens are already restricted; tetrachlorvinphos is banned in the European Union while still allowed for use in livestock and pet collars in the U.S. Parathion was banned in both the U.S. and Europe in 2003.

The classifications won’t appear on the labels for these products, but serve as the latest review of scientific evidence that governments and international organizations can rely on to create their own regulations.

MONEY Odd Spending

Get a Vasectomy and Have a Ball Watching March Madness

Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies cuts down the net after defeating the Michigan State Spartans to win the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.
Elsa—Getty Images Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies cuts down the net after defeating the Michigan State Spartans to win the East Regional Final of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 30, 2014 in New York City.

Yes, timing your vasectomy to coincide with the NCAA March Madness tournament is a thing.

“Get your vasectomy, then sit on the couch for 3 days watching sports–Doctors orders!”

That’s part of the pitch for the “Vas Madness” deal currently being offered by the Texas-based Urology Team. The special package costs $595 and includes an initial consultation and the surgical procedure that’ll stop you from getting anyone pregnant. But sorry sports fans, “consultations and vasectomies cannot be performed on the same day,” the promotion warns.

As bizarre as it sounds, the idea of getting snipped around the time of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is not new. Vasectomy clinics report spikes in appointments around March Madness, presumably from men who feel that there’s no better period than tourney time to recover from the briefly painful procedure. The recovery involves little more than a few days of guilt-free sitting and icing one’s nether regions. And since you’re immobile for a spell thanks to doctor’s orders, why not see if there are any good games on TV?

One year, a clinic in Cape Cod even threw in free pizza as part of its March Madness-themed vasectomy package.

The vasectomy-March Madness connection dates back at least a half-dozen years. Many people credit the seemingly odd concept to the Oregon Urology Institute, which ran a “Snip City” radio ad in the late ’00s, encouraging men to have a little “snip-snip,” followed by “doctors orders to sit back and watch nonstop basketball.”

Who are the men who time this sensitive, life-changing procedure in such a way? “They are the clever ones, the men who put some thought into when they scheduled that not-often-discussed elective surgery,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported back in 2009. “Their wives might even wait on them.”

At the time, one Cleveland-area urologist told the paper that his schedule was completely booked with vasectomies timed to coincide with March Madness. And he said he fully understood why men timed it so: “If they’re going to have a day off, it might as well be on a day when they would want to be watching basketball, as opposed to watching ‘Oprah.'”

TIME health

When Did Mandatory Vaccinations Become Common?

Smallpox Vaccination
New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images Joseph Burns, 8, grimaces as doctor vaccinates him at St. Joan of Arc Parochial School in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, in 1947

Anti-Vaxxers are upset with mandatory Measles vaccinations. But mandatory vaccinations have a long history in the United States

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Herbal panaceas, special cloths, strict diets, cool drinks, eschewing fireplaces, and the edict that a patient’s bedclothes be no higher than the patient’s waist—these were the prescriptions of the pre-inoculation era when someone contracted smallpox. For centuries pandemic diseases devastated much of mankind. Hardly more than a century ago, 20% of children fell to disease before the age of five, a staggering 20% more died before entering into adolescence, survivors finding little recourse in adulthood from the scourges of the age—diphtheria, yellow fever, small pox, measles, pertussis, and a deadly handful of others. It was in such a dire period that the first federal health mandates were made and bore the political origins of compulsory vaccination.

A string of yellow fever outbreaks erupted between 1793 and 1798, taking thousands of lives and leaving the nation dizzy with loss. Shortly after the outbreaks, John Adams signed and established the first federal quarantine law against the recurrent epidemics of yellow fever. According to Carleton B. Chapman, an MD, the Federal Quarantine Proposal of 1796 met “virtually no opposition.”

A couple of years later, in 1798, Congress returned to the issue after a high percentage of marine workers succumbed to yellow fever. For the first time ever,, Congress required privately employed sailors to own insurance and authorized the collection of a monthly payroll tax to fund it. John Adams promptly signed the law when it reached his desk.

Chapman states that few founders contested the federal government’s responsibility to protect the population from epidemics like yellow fever. The real issue, he reports, “was which level of government should enact and enforce quarantine.” This was the same question that arose years later when vaccination gained popularity in the medical field. Wendy K. Marine, George J. Annas, and Leonard Glantz explain that while Jeffersonians were uncomfortable with a strong federal role, Jefferson himself favored a bill that required the federal government to “guarantee and distribute effective vaccine” and signed it into law in 1813. Ultimately, Congress decided that the best approach was to leave the implementation of vaccination efforts up to state and local authorities.

America had many years of experience with vaccinations. The Puritans provided for vaccinations against smallpox after an outbreak devastated New England. But immunizations weren’t required anywhere in the United States until 1809, when Boston imposed mandatory vaccination to quell recurring outbreaks of smallpox that patchy, voluntary vaccination was permitting. Subsequently, some states adopted similar legislation. Scholars Alexandra Minna Stern and Howard Markel report that incidences of smallpox markedly declined between 1802 and 1840, but made major reappearances in the 1830s and 1870s when public memory of life imperiled by disease had dimmed and “irregular physicians” of the 1850s challenged the practice of immunization with “unorthodox medical theories.” One skeptical leader, British immigrant and reformer William Tebb, claimed, facts notwithstanding, that vaccination induced 80% of smallpox cases. Further, he alleged 25,000 children were “slaughtered” in Britain each year thanks to the program. The arguments were preposterous and contrary to evidence, but resonated with the public.

There’s a striking parallel to current anti-vaxxer scares playing on people’s fears, like the discredited and recanted study that alleged vaccination induced autism. Anti-vaccinationist Dr. J.F. Banton warned that vaccination would introduce “bioplasm” into the bloodstream and expose subjects to the “vices, passions, and diseases of the cow.” Stern and Markel relate that critics of vaccination claimed it was a “destructive and potentially defiling procedure of heroic medicine” akin to blood-letting. Many working-class people voiced the fear you hear today that the work of scientists was an “assault on their communities by the ruling class” and an “intrusion of their privacy and bodily integrity.”

The upshot? Smallpox cases surged to numbers that had not been seen in decades. Consequently, many states enacted new vaccination laws while others began enforcing existing laws. This, in turn, stirred increased opposition. California, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, repealed compulsory laws in response to the agitation.

Cambridge, Massachusetts found itself in the throes of a smallpox outbreak in 1902. Disease beset the area and threatened to spread into a major epidemic. To stop this from happening in the future the state passed a law giving city boards of health the authority to mandate vaccinations. But some people objected. When officials ordered Henning Jacobson, a Swedish immigrant and Lutheran pastor to be vaccinated, he refused treatment on grounds of past harm, saying both he and his son had experienced “extreme suffering.” Jacobson’s status as an ethnic and religious minority likely contributed to his decision to refuse treatment. His distrust of authority is shared today by many African Americans, who well remember that racist scientists performed experiments such as the Tuskegee syphilis study on people of color.

In a sense, Jacobson represented the quintessential anti-vaxxer, which may be why his case caught the eye of the anti-vaccination league, which encouraged Jacobson’s recalcitrance and may or may not have provided the Harvard-trained James W. Pickering and Henry Ballard to represent him in court. Eventually the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In 1905 the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the state against Jacobson; the Court having found that an immunization rate of 85-90 percent confers protection on the entire group. The landmark Supreme Court case Jacobson v Massachusetts served as the precedent for future court decisions and the foundation of public health laws.

The Supreme Court considered the ordinance again in 1922 when some objected to the requirement that school children be vaccinated. Once again, the principle of mandatory vaccination was upheld. By 1969 compulsory immunization laws in twelve states—Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia—had expanded to include smallpox, measles, poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. Meanwhile, seven states—Arizona, California, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington—found it unlawful to compel citizens to be vaccinated for smallpox while still requiring pre-enrollment immunization for other diseases like measles.

Since its inception compulsory public health laws have generated skepticism and resistance. Today, recent measles outbreaks—176 affected from January 1st to March 13th, 2015—have revitalized a long-lived debate and precipitated discussion about new approaches to public education.

Cristina Valldejuli, a graduate of the University of Iowa, is an HNN intern.

TIME Infectious Disease

A New Blood Test Could Stop Doctors From Overprescribing Antibiotics

In this image provided by Duke University, lab research analyst Marshall Nichols does research relating to a new blood test on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013, in Durham, N.C.
Shawn Rocco—AP In this image provided by Duke University, lab-research analyst Marshall Nichols does research relating to a new blood test on Sept. 17, 2013, in Durham, N.C.

The procedure distinguishes between viral and bacterial infections

Scientists claim to have established a new blood test that can help doctors quickly distinguish between bacterial and viral infections, giving physicians the ability to prescribe antibiotics more accurately. That’s according to a study published by PLOS One on Wednesday.

Israeli-based company MeMed, along with researchers from other institutes, says that they examined over 1,000 patients and found that their ImmunoXpert blood test could distinguish between immune responses to bacterial or viral infections. The procedure is reportedly fast, taking only hours to complete when alternatives often require days.

“Antibiotic misuse is a pressing public health concern, with devastating healthcare and economic consequences,” stated MeMed CEO Eran Eden in a release to media. “Unlike most traditional diagnostics, this approach builds on an exquisitely informative system crafted by nature — the human immune system.”

While still in the laboratory stage, the test could be important because doctors have long struggled to identify the root causes of infections, meaning that antibiotics, which only attack bacteria, are often prescribed unnecessarily.

TIME medicine

A Simple 3-Part Test May Predict Alzheimer’s

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Chris Parsons—Getty Images

Dementia is a part of aging, but how do doctors separate normal brain decline from the first signs of Alzheimer’s? A new test that any physician can perform in their office may help

Diseases like Alzheimer’s start years, even decades, before the first symptoms of memory loss shows up. And with rates of those diseases rising, experts say that more primary care physicians—not neurology experts—will have the task of identifying these patients early so they can take advantage of whatever early interventions might be available.

“If we had a simple blood test, a cholesterol test for Alzheimer’s disease, that would help,” says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic, “but we don’t.” But Petersen has a potential solution, and according to a new paper released Wednesday in the journal Neurology, his Alzheimer’s test has promise.

Petersen and his team wanted to develop a test that any physician can administer to patients, without the need for any new technology or expensive equipment. Petersen believes that the test they came up with could become a useful tool for any physician, even those without special training in the brain. “What we are trying to do is give them some help so they can be as efficient as possible without ignoring these important cognitive issues,” he says.

In the first phase of the test, his researchers simply collected information from 1,500 patients’ medical charts—their age, family history of Alzheimer’s, factors such as diabetes or smoking that have been linked to Alzheimer’s, and whether the patient had ever reported problems with memory.

In the next phase they studied the results of the patient’s basic mental exam as well as of a psychiatric evaluation, because depression and anxiety have been connected to Alzheimer’s.

And another factor that emerged as important in developing the disease—how quickly the participant could walk a short distance. “We were a little surprised,” says Petersen. “But what’s nice about it is that it’s a nice non-cognitive, motor factor so it’s looking at another aspect of brain function.”

MORE: This Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Could Be a Game Changer

Petersen suggests that every physician should get this information on their patients at age 65; that way, they can have a baseline against which to compare any changes as their patients age. Only if they show such changes — a slower walk, for example, or worsening signs of depression or memory issues — should they move on to the third phase of the test, which is a blood analysis. That would look for known genetic factors linked to Alzheimer’s, including the presence of certain versions of the ApoE gene.

Currently, the only way to truly separate out those on the road to Alzheimer’s is to conduct expensive imaging tests of the brain, or to do a spinal tap, an invasive procedure that extracts spinal fluid for signs of the amyloid protein that builds up in the disease. “We have either expensive techniques or invasive techniques and it’s not practical to do them from a public health screening standpoint,” says Petersen.

MORE: New Test May Predict Alzheimer’s 10 Years Before Diagnosis

While his test is a possible solution to that problem, he acknowledges that the results need be repeated before it’s recommended on a wide scale to physicians across the country. But those who scored higher on the test of risk factors had a seven-fold higher chance of developing mild cognitive impairment than those with lower scores.

For now, even if doctors identify patients around age 65 who might be at higher risk of developing cognitive impairment, there isn’t much they can do to interrupt the process. But they can direct them toward clinical trials of promising new drugs to address Alzheimer’s dementia, which may slow the cognitive decline considerably.

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