Facts, not Fantasy

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Mercury isn't really Mercury

Thiomersal fact sheet


Thiomersal (also known as thimerosal) is a mercury-based preservative used in some vaccines. The level of mercury in vaccines is very low and there is no evidence that thiomersal in vaccines has caused any health problems except minor reactions, such as redness at the injection site. However, because of the potential risk of harm from mercury, thiomersal was removed from most childhood vaccines as a precautionary measure. Follow up studies in children and adults have not shown any harmful effects from thiomersal in vaccines.

The following commonly asked questions are answered in this fact sheet:

What is thiomersal?

Thiomersal, also known as thimerosal, is an organic compound containing 49.6% ethylmercury by weight. It has been used in very small amounts in some vaccines since the 1930s to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination, particularly in multidose vials where withdrawing repeated doses from the same vial was more likely to result in contamination.

In 1999, concerns were raised in the United States that the total amount of mercury, from thiomersal in vaccines given in the infant immunisation schedule, would potentially exceed the recommended level set by a US government agency. There were no studies indicating that the ethylmercury in thiomersal had caused harmful effects in children (except for occasional redness at the injection site); however, it was recommended that thiomersal be removed from many childhood vaccines to eliminate any potential risk. Since that time much more information has been gathered regarding thiomersal ethylmercury).

What is mercury?

Mercury is a metal occurring naturally in the environment. Mercury is found in three main forms: metallic mercury which gives rise to mercury vapour, inorganic mercury (a form in the environment and in animal tissues) and organic mercury (the two main forms of which are methylmercury and ethylmercury). These various forms of mercury are found in the air, earth, aquatic sediment, in fish (particularly in long lived fish such as sharks), and are used in industrial processes, dental fillings, thermometers, and vaccines.

The two organic forms of mercury, methylmercury and ethylmercury (in thiomersal), are closely related but they have important differences. Methylmercury is more potent; it accumulates in the body because the time taken for the body to eliminate it (know as the half life) is about 50 days. Ethylmercury (in thiomersal) does not accumulate in the body to such an extent, because its half life is only about 7-10 days. Ethylmercury is rapidly converted in the body to inorganic mercury, which is excreted in the stool. Mercury can have harmful effects on the central nervous system, skin and kidneys, but most cases of the toxic effects of mercury have been from methylmercury, not ethylmercury.

How much mercury is harmful?

Mercury is harmful only after it reaches a certain level in the body. The toxicity depends on the amount of mercury consumed in relation to body weight, over a period of time. Therefore, because of their size, infants are at greater risk than adults. Different expert bodies have determined that safe levels of mercury consumption lie somewhere between 0.7 µg/kg body weight/week (Environmental Protection Agency, USA) to 3.3 µg/kg of body weight/week (World Health Organization). These values indicate levels of exposure that can be tolerated, and have been deliberately calculated to be much lower than the level at which harm might occur. For example, the EPA level is ten times below the lowest level calculated as causing harm, so there is a large built-in safety margin. In addition, these levels refer to methylmercury, whereas thiomersal is converted to ethylmercury, which is broken down and excreted more rapidly and does not accumulate in the body like methylmercury.

How much mercury exposure results from vaccines?

In Australia, thiomersal has been removed from all routine childhood vaccines since 2000. The exception is one type of Hepatitis B vaccine which contains a greatly reduced amount of thiomersal (see Table 1 below). When thiomersal-containing vaccines were being used before 2000, the maximum number of doses of thiomersal-containing vaccines a 6 month old child might have received was as follows: 3 doses each of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, 3 doses of hepatitis B vaccine, and 3 doses of Hib vaccine. This would have resulted in a total intake of 175 µg of ethylmercury, which is equivalent to about 1.9 µg/kg body weight per week, for an average-sized baby. This level is well below the World Health Organization (WHO) limit for methylmercury discussed above. Two studies measuring mercury levels in the blood in infants given thiomersal-containing vaccines have indicated that their blood concentrations of mercury did not rise above designated levels, except possibly transiently in a premature infant less than 1kg in weight.

In many countries thiomersal continues to be used in vaccines. The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GAVSC) of the WHO has concluded that "there is currently no evidence of mercury toxicity in infants, children or adults exposed to thiomersal-containing vaccines" and that "there is no reason to change current immunisation practices with thiomersal-containing vaccines on the grounds of safety".

What studies have been done to look at the health effects of thiomersal in vaccines?

Many studies in Denmark, Sweden, the United States, and the United Kingdom have now shown that there is no evidence of developmental or neurologic abnormalities resulting from the use of vaccines containing thiomersal. In 2004, a report by the Institutes of Medicine, an independent expert body in the United States, concluded that there is no association between autism and vaccines that contain thiomersal. Also in 2004, an extensive review of all the studies on thiomersal-containing vaccines and autism and neurodevelopmental disorders was published in the journal Pediatrics. Studies looking at autism, mental retardation, speech disorders, and attention deficit disorder, as well as other conditions were reviewed. Overall, the evidence indicated that autism and neurodevelopmental disorders are not associated with thiomersal in vaccines. The reviewers noted that the epidemiologic studies done that suggest a link (notably only by one pair of authors) “have significant design flaws that invalidate their conclusions.”

Why was thiomersal removed from childhood vaccines if there is no danger?

Although there has been a lack of evidence that thiomersal in vaccines is harmful, the recommendations to remove it from vaccines were made for two main reasons. Firstly, it was to reduce exposure in very small premature babies with low body weight in whom there was a theoretical risk that the intake of mercury from repeated doses of thiomersal-containing vaccines could have been high. Secondly, the intent has been to reduce total exposure to mercury in babies and young children in a world where other environmental sources (particularly in food such as fish) may be more difficult to eliminate. Along with these recommendations, guidelines have been developed on limiting the consumption of certain types of fish, particularly in the diet of pregnant women and young children. This advice is available at: http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/whatsinfood/.

In the place of thiomersal, preservatives have either been eliminated from single dose vaccine vials or alternative preservatives have been used. Multidose vaccine vials for are no longer used for routine immunisation in Australia, so the risk of bacterial contamination from withdrawing repeated doses of vaccine is minimal.

What about vaccines for adults?

The levels of mercury in adults resulting from thiomersal-containing vaccines are so low that experts do not recommend removal of thiomersal from vaccines for adolescents or adults. The vaccines available in Australia that currently contain thiomersal are listed below in
Table 2.

Which vaccines contain thiomersal?

All vaccines on the current Australian Standard Vaccination Schedule (ASVS) for infants and children under the age of 8 years are now free of thiomersal. The exception is the one of the infant hepatitis B vaccines, Engerix-B paediatric formulation, which contains a greatly reduced amount of thiomersal (2 µg per dose). The following tables list the vaccines used in Australia that are thiomersal free and vaccines that contain thiomersal.

Table 1:

Thiomersal-free vaccines available for use in infants and children in Australia

VaccineTrade NameManufacturer
Hepatitis BH-B-VaxII*
paediatric formulation
CSL/Merck Sharpe & Dohme
DTPaInfanrix and TripacelGlaxoSmithKline, CSL
DTPa-hepatitis BInfanrix-Hep BGlaxoSmithKline
DTPa-hepatitis B-IPVInfanrix-PentaGlaxoSmithKline
DTPa-hepatitis B-IPV-Hib B PRPTInfanrix-HexaGlaxoSmithKline
Hepatitis B - Hib B PRP-OMPComvaxCSL
Haemophilus influenzae B OMPLiquid PedVaxHIBMerck Sharpe & Dohme
Haemophilus influenzae B PRPTActHibPasteur Mrieux
Haemophilus influenzae B HbOCHibTITERLederle
Measles, mumps, rubellaMMR II, PriorixCSL, GlaxoSmithKline
Meningococcal group C conjugate vaccinesMeningitec, Menjugate, NeisVac-CWyeth, CSL, Baxter
Oral polio vaccineOPVCSL
Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV)IPOLAventis Pasteur
Polysaccharide pueumococcal vaccinePneumovax 23Merck Sharpe & Dohme
7-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccinePrevenarLederle
Varicella vaccineVarilrixGlaxoSmithKline
Varicella vaccineVarivaxCSL/Merck Sharpe & Dohme
Influenza vaccineVaxigrip, FluvaxAventis Pasteur, CSL


Table 2:

Vaccines available in Australia that contain thiomersal

VaccineTrade NameManufacturerDose of
Combined diphtheria and
tetanus vaccine
CDTCSL50 micrograms
Adult diphtheria and tetanus vaccineADTCSL50 micrograms
Diphtheria vaccine CSL50 micrograms
Hepatitis BEngerix B AdultGlaxoSmithKline<2 micrograms
*Influenza vaccinesFluarix, Influvac, FluvaxGlaxoSmithKline, Solvay, CSL50 micrograms
Japaneseencephalitis vaccineJE VaxCSL35 micrograms
Q fever vaccineQ vaxCSL50 micrograms

*Thiomersal-free influenza vaccines are listed in Table 1.

Further reading

1. Mercury and vaccines (Thimerosal). Centers for Disease Control. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

2. American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), United States Public Health Service (PHS). Joint Statement concerning removal of thimerosal from vaccines. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

3. Centers for Disease Control. Mercury and vaccines Fact Sheet. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

4. Recommendations regarding the use of vaccines that contain thimerosal as a preservative. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 1999. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

5. Institute of Medicine Immunization Safety Review Committee, Stratton K, Gable A, McCormick MC, editors. 2001. Thimerosal-containing vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

6. Institute of Medicine Immunization Safety Review Committee. Vaccines and Autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2004, in press Prepublication review available at: http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10997.html (accessed November 23, 2004).

7. Institute of Medicine Press Release. MMR Vaccine and Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines Are Not Associated With Autism. May 18, 2004. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

8. European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products (EMEA). Statement on thiomersal in vaccines. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

9. Thiomersal and vaccines:questions and answers. World Health Organisation. Scientific papers. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

10. Parker SK, Schwartz B, Todd J and Pickering LK. Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Critical Review of Published Original Data. Pediatrics 2004; 114(3): 793-804

11. Heron J, Golding J, and ALSPAC Study Team. Thimerosal Exposure in Infants and Developmental Disorders: A Prospective Cohort Study in the United Kingdom Does Not Support a Causal Association. Pediatrics 2004; 114(3): 577-583.

12. Study Fails to Show a Connection Between Thimerosal and Autism. Source: American Academy of Pediatrics, May 16, 2003. Link (accessed November 23, 2004).

13. Clements CJ. The evidence for the safety of thiomersal in newborn and infant vaccines.Vaccine. 2004 May 7; 22(15-16): 1854-61.

14. Offit, P.A. and Jew R.K. Addressing Parents' Concerns: Do Vaccines Contain Harmful Preservatives, Adjuvants, Additives, or Residuals? Pediatrics. 2003 112(6): 1854-1861.

15. Madsen KM, Lauritsen MB, Pedersen CB, et al. Thimerosal and the occurrence of autism: negative ecological evidence from Danish population-based data. Pediatrics 2003; 112: 604-606.

16. Verstraeten T, Davis RL, DeStefano F, Lieu TA, Rhodes PH, Black SB, Shinefield H, and Chen RT. Safety of Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines: A Two-Phased Study of Computerized Health Maintenance Organization Databases. Pediatrics 2003; 112(5): 1039-48.

17. Stehr-Green P, Tull P, Stellfeld M, Mortenson PB, and Simpson D. Autism and thimerosal-containing vaccines: Lack of consistent evidence for an association. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2003; 25(2): 101-6.

18. Nelson, KB, and Bauman, M.L. Thiomersal and autism? Pediatrics 2003; 111: 674-679.

19. Henderson DC. Mercury in vaccines - reassuring news. Lancet 2002 (Nov 30); 360: 1711-12.

20. Pichichero ME, Cernichiari E, Lopreiato J, Treanor J. Mercury concentrations and metabolism in infants receiving vaccines containing thiomersal: a descriptive study. Lancet 2002 (Nov 30); 360: 1737-41.

21. Clements CJ, Ball LK, Ball R, Pratt D. Thiomersal in vaccines. Lancet 2000; 355: 1279-1280.

22. Halsey NA. Limiting infant exposure to thimerosal in vaccines and other sources of mercury [editorial]. Journal of the American Medical Association 1999; 282: 1763-6.

Online resources

* "Sticking Up for Thimerosal: Read the studies — it's safe." To access "Sticking Up for Thimerosal," go to: http://slate.msn.com/id/2123647

* Information about mercury and vaccines can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/nip/vacsafe/concerns/thimerosal/default.htm#facts

* Information about autism can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dd/aic/about/default.htm

* Synopses of articles from the scientific, peer-reviewed literature related to vaccines and immunization can be found at: http://www.immunizationinfo.org/immunization_science.cfm?cat=1

* Thimerosal-related resources for parents/patients can be found at: http://www.vaccineinformation.org/thimerosal.asp

* Journal abstracts related to thimerosal can be found at: http://www.immunize.org/safety/thimerosal.htm#journalarticles

* A transcript from the HHS Media Briefing on Vaccines and Child Health (held July 19, 2005) is at: http://www.cdc.gov/od/oc/media/transcripts/t050719.htm


The IOM report "Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism", released May 2004, is now available to download free as a ready-to-print (PDF) document. To access it, go to: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/10997.html (Click on "sign in to download", and follow the instructions).

This document was prepared by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance of Vaccine Preventable Diseases. Updated November, 2004.

This document was written by Associate Professor Raina MacIntyre, Professor Margaret Burgess, Associate Professor Peter McIntyre and Dr Kristine Macartney of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance of Vaccine Preventable Diseases.

[Note: This is a repost of last Monday's article, of the same title, because my colleague, Larian LeQuella, made a SNAFU of doing a "copy & paste" job of the HTML tables in the original post; not really his fault, the web-master/developer at the other website, from which the original article was sourced, did not configure the HTML tags for the tables correctly — probably was goofing off at work! — and, consequently, the system here misinterpreted them — which I had to completely debug! Also, this blog works best with CSS rather than HTML tags.]

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today in the News (22 Oct 09)

Before I start with the news, I did want to point out that "I was right" regarding "Ida" and the media hyper-sensationalism... I think the biggest thing that this points out though is that we have so many scientifically illiterate people around that none of them even could tell that they were jumping to the wrong conclusions, and using incorrect terminology, or a whole host of other dumb mistakes made on the part of the media and the general public.

Tool-making Human Ancestors Inhabited Grassland Environments Two Million Years Ago. In an article published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE on October 21, 2009, Dr Thomas Plummer of Queens College at the City University of New York, Dr Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and colleagues report the oldest archeological evidence of early human activities in a grassland environment, dating to 2 million years ago. The article highlights new research and its implications concerning the environments in which human ancestors evolved. Scientists as far back as Charles Darwin have thought that adaptation to grassland environments profoundly influenced the course of human evolution. This idea has remained well-entrenched, even with recent recognition that hominin origins took place in a woodland environment and that the adaptive landscape in Africa fluctuated dramatically in response to short-term climatic shifts.

Are Humans Still Evolving? Absolutely, Says A New Analysis Of A Long-term Survey Of Human Health. Although advances in medical care have improved standards of living over time, humans aren't entirely sheltered from the forces of natural selection, a new study shows. "There is this idea that because medicine has been so good at reducing mortality rates, that means that natural selection is no longer operating in humans," said Stephen Stearns of Yale University. A recent analysis by Stearns and colleagues turns this idea on its head. As part of a working group sponsored by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, NC, the team of researchers decided to find out if natural selection — a major driving force of evolution — is still at work in humans today. The result? Human evolution hasn't ground to a halt. In fact, we're likely to evolve at roughly the same rates as other living things, findings suggest.

Time In A Bottle: Scientists Watch Evolution Unfold. A 21-year Michigan State University experiment that distills the essence of evolution in laboratory flasks not only demonstrates natural selection at work, but could lead to biotechnology and medical research advances, researchers said. Charles Darwin's seminal Origin of Species first laid out the case for evolution exactly 150 years ago. Now, MSU professor Richard Lenski and colleagues document the process in their analysis of 40,000 generations of bacteria, published this week in the international science journal Nature. Lenski, Hannah Professor of Microbial Ecology at MSU, started growing cultures of fast-reproducing, single-celled E. coli bacteria in 1988. If a genetic mutation gives a cell an advantage in competition for food, he reasoned, it should dominate the entire culture. While Darwin's theory of natural selection is supported by other studies, it has never before been studied for so many cycles and in such detail.

Global Health Experts Report Childhood Vaccines At All-time High, But Access Not Yet Equitable. Reversing a downward trend, immunization rates are now at their highest ever and vaccine development worldwide is booming, according to a new assessment released today by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the World Bank. The State of the World's Vaccines and Immunization reports that more infants are being immunized today than ever before -- a record 106 million in 2008 -- according to new data. At the same time, its authors are calling on donor nations to address a funding gap that leaves millions of children still at risk, particularly in the poorest nations and communities, where preventable diseases take their deadliest toll.

H1N1 Simulation Modeling Shows Rapid Vaccine Rollout Effective In Reducing Infection Rates. Early action, especially rapid rollout of vaccines, is extremely effective in reducing the attack rate of the H1N1 influenza virus, according to a simulation model of a pandemic outbreak reported in a new study in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal). The article presents a simulation model that projects how many people will be infected under different disease control strategies. The model simulated a pandemic outbreak based on demographic information from London, a mid-sized city in Ontario, Canada as well as epidemiologic influenza pandemic data. It looked at the impact of vaccination timing, school closures and antiviral drug treatment strategies as well as the effect of pre-existing immunity.

I put this in the category of "We wasted a bunch of money to shut you up, and it still probably won't matter..." Mercury Levels In Children With Autism And Those Developing Typically Are The Same, Study Finds. In a large population-based study published online today, researchers at the UC Davis MIND Institute report that after adjusting for a number of factors, typically developing children and children with autism have similar levels of mercury in their blood streams. Mercury is a heavy metal found in other studies to adversely affect the developing nervous system. The study, appearing in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, is the most rigorous examination to date of blood-mercury levels in children with autism. The researchers cautioned, however, that the study is not an examination of whether mercury plays a role in causing the disorder.

Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene Via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have uncovered a new genetic signature that correlates strongly with autism and which doesn't involve changes to the DNA sequence itself. Rather, the changes are in the way the genes are turned on and off. The finding may suggest new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of autism. The researchers found higher-than-usual numbers of gene-regulating molecules called methyl groups in a region of the genome that regulates oxytocin receptor expression in people with autism.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All

I found this article on Wired. I highly encourage you to read it!

An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All

By Amy Wallace

To hear his enemies talk, you might think Paul Offit is the most hated man in America
. A pediatrician in Philadelphia, he is the coinventor of a rotavirus vaccine that could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Yet environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. slams Offit as a “biostitute” who whores for the pharmaceutical industry. Actor Jim Carrey calls him a profiteer and distills the doctor’s attitude toward childhood vaccination down to this chilling mantra: “Grab ‘em and stab ‘em.” Recently, Carrey and his girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, went on CNN’s Larry King Live and singled out Offit’s vaccine, RotaTeq, as one of many unnecessary vaccines, all administered, they said, for just one reason: “Greed.”

Thousands of people revile Offit publicly at rallies, on Web sites, and in books. Type pauloffit.com into your browser and you’ll find not Offit’s official site but an anti-Offit screed “dedicated to exposing the truth about the vaccine industry’s most well-paid spokesperson.” Go to Wikipedia to read his bio and, as often as not, someone will have tampered with the page. The section on Offit’s education was once altered to say that he’d studied on a pig farm in Toad Suck, Arkansas. (He’s a graduate of Tufts University and the University of Maryland School of Medicine).

Then there are the threats. Offit once got an email from a Seattle man that read, “I will hang you by your neck until you are dead!” Other bracing messages include “You have blood on your hands” and “Your day of reckoning will come.” A few years ago, a man on the phone ominously told Offit he knew where the doctor’s two children went to school. At a meeting of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an anti-vaccine protester emerged from a crowd of people holding signs that featured Offit’s face emblazoned with the word terrorist and grabbed the unsuspecting, 6-foot-tall physician by the jacket.

“I don’t think he wanted to hurt me,” Offit recalls. “He was just excited to be close to the personification of such evil.” Still, whenever Offit gets a letter with an unfamiliar return address, he holds the envelope at arm’s length before gingerly tearing it open. “I think about it,” he admits. “Anthrax.”

So what has this award-winning 58-year-old scientist done to elicit such venom? He boldly states — in speeches, in journal articles, and in his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets — that vaccines do not cause autism or autoimmune disease or any of the other chronic conditions that have been blamed on them. He supports this assertion with meticulous evidence. And he calls to account those who promote bogus treatments for autism — treatments that he says not only don’t work but often cause harm.

As a result, Offit has become the main target of a grassroots movement that opposes the systematic vaccination of children and the laws that require it. McCarthy, an actress and a former Playboy centerfold whose son has been diagnosed with autism, is the best-known leader of the movement, but she is joined by legions of well-organized supporters and sympathizers.

This isn’t a religious dispute, like the debate over creationism and intelligent design. It’s a challenge to traditional science that crosses party, class, and religious lines. It is partly a reaction to Big Pharma’s blunders and PR missteps, from Vioxx to illegal marketing ploys, which have encouraged a distrust of experts. It is also, ironically, a product of the era of instant communication and easy access to information. The doubters and deniers are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Today in the News (16 Oct 09)

Mechanism Of Gene Linked To Autism, Schizophrenia Pinpointed. A Stanford University School of Medicine researcher has pinpointed the mechanism by which a gene associated with both autism and schizophrenia influences behavior in mice. And just recently, he received a $1.65 million government grant to expand his efforts to include many more such genes. In a study to be published online on Oct. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by Thomas Sudhof, MD, the Avram Goldstein Professor in the School of Medicine and professor of molecular and cellular physiology, characterized key neurophysiological changes wrought by the deletion of a particular gene in bioengineered mice. The team further identified behavioral changes in the mice that are similar to some symptoms of autism and schizophrenia.

Experts Summarize State Of The Science In Autism Disorders. Scientific understanding and medical treatments for autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) have advanced significantly over the past several years, but much remains to be done, say experts from the Center for Autism Research at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who recently published a scientific review of the field. "We summarized many new findings by autism researchers throughout the world, and give our perspective on the current state of the science in autism spectrum disorders," said lead author Susan E. Levy, M.D., a developmental pediatrician and medical director of the Regional Autism Center at Children's Hospital. "We hope our review will be a useful reference for healthcare professionals working with ASD patients and families."

And AGAIN: No Scientific Link Between Childhood Vaccines And Autism, Review Shows. A new article recently published in the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing explored vaccination history, vaccine safety monitoring systems in the U.S., and the two most publicized theoretical vaccine-related exposures associated with autism – the vaccine preservative thimerosal and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A review of published research shows that there is not convincing scientific evidence supporting a relationship between vaccines and autism. The article is part of a special issue, which includes five articles focusing on the topic of autism. By definition, the onset of autism occurs prior to age three. No clear cause of autism has been identified, although various possible associations have been examined. There has been growing interest in environmental exposures, including vaccinations. Childhood vaccinations are administered as early as possible to assure that infants are protected against diseases that occur in early childhood. This time period often coincides with the time period that autism may be suspected or diagnosed.

Earlier Flu Viruses Provided Some Immunity To Current H1N1 Influenza, Study Shows. University of California, Davis, researchers studying the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus, formerly referred to as "swine flu," have identified a group of immunologically important sites on the virus that are also present in seasonal flu viruses that have been circulating for years. These molecular sites appear to result in some level of immunity to the new virus in people who were exposed to the earlier influenza viruses. More than a dozen structural sites, or epitopes, in the virus may explain why many people over the age of 60, who were likely exposed to similar viruses earlier in life, carry antibodies or other type of immunity against the new virus, immune responses that could be attributed to earlier flu exposure and vaccinations.

Girls Aware Of HPV Vaccine's Benefits. Contrary to concerns that the human papillomavirus vaccine might promote promiscuity, a national survey of girls and young women found that the majority of respondents did not believe the HPV vaccine protected them against other sexually transmitted infections. The study, conducted by University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Chicago researchers, appears online and in the November issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health. The findings are reassuring in that girls and young women did not think that the vaccine provided benefits beyond protecting them from HPV, said Dr. Rachel Caskey, assistant professor of pediatrics and general internal medicine at UIC and lead author of the study. "We also found that they did not think that they could stop cervical cancer screening, or pap smears, which is critical."

Sex In The Caribbean: Environmental Change Drives Evolutionary Change, Eventually. Hungry, sexual organisms replaced well-fed, clonal organisms in the Caribbean Sea as the Isthmus of Panama arose, separating the Caribbean from the Pacific, report researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The fossil record shows that if a species could shift from clonal to sexual reproduction it survived. Otherwise it was destined for extinction, millions of years later. Closure of the Isthmus of Panama involved a protracted sequence of volcanic and tectonic events. During the final phase, between about 4.5 and 3.5 million years ago, the Caribbean underwent a major change from a pea soup-like environment, fed by nutrient-rich waters surging up along South America, into a crystal-clear, nutrient-poor environment.

New Type Of Flying Reptile: Darwin's Pterodactyl Preyed On Flying Dinosaurs. An international group of researchers from the University of Leicester (UK), and the Geological Institute, Beijing (China) has identified a new type of flying reptile, providing the first clear evidence of an unusual and controversial type of evolution. Pterosaurs, flying reptiles, also known as pterodactyls, dominated the skies in the Mesozoic Era, the age of dinosaurs, 220-65 million years ago. Scientists have long recognized two different groups of pterosaurs: primitive long-tailed forms and their descendants, advanced short-tailed pterosaurs some of which reached gigantic size. These groups are separated by a large evolutionary gap, identified in Darwin's time, that looked as if it would never be filled – until now.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Today in the News (12 Oct 09)

Archaeopteryx Was Not Very Bird-like: Inside The First Bird, Surprising Signs Of A Dinosaur. The raptor-like Archaeopteryx has long been viewed as the archetypal first bird, but new research reveals that it was actually a lot less "bird-like" than scientists had believed. In fact, the landmark study led by paleobiologist Gregory M. Erickson of The Florida State University has upended the iconic first-known-bird image of Archaeopteryx (from the Greek for "ancient wing"), which lived 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic period in what is now Germany. Instead, the animal has been recast as more of a feathered dinosaur -- bird on the outside, dinosaur on the inside.

New Mesozoic Mammal: Discovery Illuminates Mammalian Ear Evolution While Dinosaurs Ruled. An international team of paleontologists has discovered a new species of mammal that lived 123 million years ago in what is now the Liaoning Province in northeastern China. The newly discovered animal, Maotherium asiaticus, comes from famous fossil-rich beds of the Yixian Formation. This new remarkably well preserved fossil, as reported in the October 9 issue of the journal Science, offers an important insight into how the mammalian middle ear evolved. The discoveries of such exquisite dinosaur-age mammals from China provide developmental biologists and paleontologists with evidence of how developmental mechanisms have impacted the morphological (body-structure) evolution of the earliest mammals and sheds light on how complex structures can arise in evolution because of changes in developmental pathways.

Early Hominid First Walked On Two Legs In The Woods. Among the many surprises associated with the discovery of the oldest known, nearly complete skeleton of a hominid is the finding that this species took its first steps toward bipedalism not on the open, grassy savanna, as generations of scientists – going back to Charles Darwin – hypothesized, but in a wooded landscape. “This species was not a savanna species like Darwin proposed,” said University of Illinois anthropology professor Stanley Ambrose, a co-author of two of 11 studies published this week in Science on the hominid, Ardipithecus ramidus. This creature, believed to be an early ancestor of the human lineage, lived in Ethiopia some 4.4 million years ago.

Frozen Assets: Decades-old Frozen Infant Stool Samples Provide Clues To Norovirus Evolution. A search through decades-old frozen infant stool samples has yielded rich dividends for scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. The team customized a laboratory technique to screen thousands of samples for norovirus, a major cause of acute gastroenteritis outbreaks in people of all ages. What they discovered about the rate of evolution of a specific group of noroviruses could help researchers develop specific antiviral drugs and, potentially, a vaccine against a disease that is very unpleasant and sometimes deadly. The research, led by Kim Y. Green, Ph.D., and Karin Bok, Ph.D., of NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, will appear in a future issue of the Journal of Virology, and is now available online. NIAID scientist Albert Z. Kapikian, M.D., is a co-author on the paper. In 1972, Dr. Kapikian and colleagues identified and characterized the virus, now known as norovirus, responsible for an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1968.

No Scientific Link Between Childhood Vaccines And Autism, Review Shows. A new article recently published in the Journal for Specialists in Pediatric Nursing explored vaccination history, vaccine safety monitoring systems in the U.S., and the two most publicized theoretical vaccine-related exposures associated with autism – the vaccine preservative thimerosal and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A review of published research shows that there is not convincing scientific evidence supporting a relationship between vaccines and autism. The article is part of a special issue, which includes five articles focusing on the topic of autism. By definition, the onset of autism occurs prior to age three. No clear cause of autism has been identified, although various possible associations have been examined. There has been growing interest in environmental exposures, including vaccinations. Childhood vaccinations are administered as early as possible to assure that infants are protected against diseases that occur in early childhood. This time period often coincides with the time period that autism may be suspected or diagnosed.

NIH Prepares To Launch 2009 H1N1 Influenza Vaccine Trial In People With Asthma. The National Institutes of Health is preparing to launch the first government-sponsored clinical trial to determine what dose of the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine is needed to induce a protective immune response in people with asthma, especially those with severe disease. The study is cosponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), both part of NIH. "People with severe asthma often take high doses of glucocorticoids that can suppress their immune system, placing them at greater risk for infection and possibly serious disease caused by 2009 H1N1 influenza virus," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "We need to determine the optimal dose of 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine that can be safely administered to this at-risk population and whether one or two doses are needed to produce an immune response that is predictive of protection."

Autism Associated With Single-letter Change In Genetic Code. In one of the first studies of its kind, an international team of researchers has uncovered a single-letter change in the genetic code that is associated with autism. The finding, published in the journal Nature, implicates a neuronal gene not previously tied to the disorder and more broadly, underscores a role for common DNA variation. In addition, the new research highlights two other regions of the genome, which are likely to contain rare genetic differences that may also influence autism risk. "These discoveries are an important step forward, but just one of many that are needed to fully dissect the complex genetics of this disorder, " said Mark Daly, one of the study's senior authors, a senior associate member at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and an associate professor at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). "The genomic regions we've identified help shed additional light on the biology of autism and point to areas that should be prioritized for further study."

Autism Speaks' genetic resource exchange, tissue program support findings published in Nature. 'A Genome-wide Linkage and Association Scan Reveals Novel Loci for Autism' published in Nature using AGRE Data and ATP tissue extends prior research findings. Autism Speaks' Autism Genetic Resource Exchange (AGRE) and the Autism Tissue Program (ATP) continue to play an integral role in continuing genetic research and new findings in the complex autism inheritance and causation puzzle. In a study published in the October 7, edition of the journal Nature, an extensive research team of more than 75 research institutions identified semaphoring 5A, a gene implicated in the growth of neurons to form proper contacts and connections with other neurons. Previous studies have reported lower levels of this protein in blood samples from individuals with autism as compared to controls. In this study, the researchers were also able to extend that observation to the brain tissue of individuals with autism vs. control brains.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why the epidemiology of swine flu matters

From ScienceBlogs:

If you are hesitating to be vaccinated for swine flu this year, perhaps this post will help you make up your mind. If it does, I hope it pushes you to get vaccinated, but whatever persuasion we attempt here will only be from a recital of what we know of the epidemiology of this pandemic. Because it is the different epidemiology that is the main feature, not the clinical characteristics or the virulence of the virus. So far this looks pretty much like a standard influenza A virus -- except for the epidemiology. Since I'm an epidemiologist, you might expect me to think this is important, and I do. Epidemiology is the public health science that studies the patterns of illness in populations. One kind of pattern we study is who is getting sick. And it is a change in this pattern that is one of the big differences between a pandemic strain and a seasonal strain.

Pandemic strains have a greater tendency to infect and make sicker much younger victims. In seasonal influenza it is the over 65 age group that contributes most of the serious illness and deaths, but with pandemic strains (not just the current one), lack of immunity in the population makes those under age 65 a bigger target and they sicken and die proportionately more than in a non-pandemic season. And that's exactly what we are seeing this year. The story that made the headlines on Friday was that 19 more pediatric deaths were added to the pediatric death toll in week 39, although not all of these children died in that week. The dates of death for the 19 stretched between July 19 and October 3 because of the way the tally is done. Starting in the 2003 - 2004 flu season deaths from influenza in people below the age of 18 became a nationally notifiable disease, reported to CDC through state epidemiologists. Each state has its own way of ascertaining the number. Some states are more complete and more timely than others, so notifications that come in a particular week can, and do, represent deaths that occurred over varying time periods, as in the instance of the 19 added this week. Still, it is clear that the young population is being hit particularly hard in comparison to the last three years for which we have data. 76 have died from swine flu since it made its first appearance in April, and 29 of those deaths have come since August 30, i.e., 29 in 5 weeks and those 5 weeks are extremely early in the flu season. In fact they occurred before the official administrative flu season even started (week 40).

The pattern of pediatric deaths and its difference from previous years is dramatically shown in this graph from CDC's weekly flu report:


The green bars are pediatric deaths from seasonal flu. You can see that in green bar terms, this flu season, which was not as bad as the previous year, was pretty typical. But this year, unlike previous years, there was a second flu season that started just as the usual one was finishing (the middle hump). We remarked on this back in July. Then there was a lull (we don't know why) and now we are into flu season and we see a third set of bars.

If you aren't in the pediatric population, here are some more patterns that may help convince you that getting vaccinated is a good idea. This comes from the Emerging Infections Program (EIP), another part of the multicomponent CDC flu surveillance system. These are lab confirmed influenza related hospitalizations in 60 counties in 12 metro areas of 10 states (San Francisco CA, Denver CO, New Haven CT, Atlanta GA, Baltimore MD, Minneapolis/St. Paul MN, Albuquerque NM, Las Cruces, NM, Albany NY, Rochester NY, Portland OR, and Nashville TN). It's a passive surveillance system where the data are obtained by record review of lab and hospital admissions databases and infection control logs. Each panel is an age group, with the top being babies and toddlers and the bottom one people over age 65 (you can see the original here if this is too small).


These are cumulative incidence rates. Think of them, at each week (the horizontal axis), as the chance that you will have gotten the flu by that time this year, i.e., if you look at week 37 the height of the curve reflects the probability that by week 37 you would have gotten flu at sometime before that (not necessarily that week). Obviously the curve can only go up, since it is cumulating (adding onto the pile of previously lab diagnosed hospitalized cases that have occurred up to that week). If you wonder how high it "should" go, based on the average of the last three flu seasons (October to April of each year) that level is the dashed horizontal line in each panel (NB: the scales are different for the top and bottom panels, because those are the age groups, the very young and the old, that usually have the highest risks so the curves wouldn't fit if the vertical scales of the other age groups was used). What this means for interpreting the curves is that if this year behaved like the average of the three previous years, the curve would slowly move upward until it reached the dashed line by the end of the flu season in April or May. Obviously this year is very different.

You once again see the altered age pattern, this time very dramatic when comparing the youngest age group with the oldest. For those of us in the over 65 age group, the seasonal has barely begun. We are just inching our way up from typical summer levels. There's a long way to go before we get to where we would usually be by the end of flu season. My age group looks pretty normal for this time of year. But if you look at the other panels you see that several have already exceeded, in the first week of the official flu season, the level of season risk we would have expected by the end of the season. Babies and toddlers are two thirds of the way there already (remember the scale is different for them so the same height is a higher risk than compared to the 2 to 4 year olds). The 2 to 4 year olds are already there and everyone between 5 and 49 years old has already exceeded their year end risk at a time when the season is usually just starting. The 50-44 year old group is already at seasonal average and then there's the over 65 age group, the exception that proves the rule: this is a pandemic strain.

Where and when it will peak we don't know but there's a long, long way until whatever causes flu to be seasonal is ended (usually sometime in April or May). Swine flu could burn itself out before then (but not before taking more children and adults with it); or it could keep going for the whole flu season; or it could co-circulate with the seasonal flu H1N1 and H3N2 strains. The assumption that swine flu will completely crowd out seasonal flu strains is premature and we could have a normal seasonal flu pattern in the over 65 age group appearing later. Or not. We still don't understand flu well enough to predict with any confidence what is going to happen.

The seasonal and swine flu vaccines are not intrinsically different except for the flu strains they contain. We change flu strains every couple of years routinely and these vaccines are made in the same way as we have been making them for many years. The only difference is a strain change, which is routine. This means that we have had extensive experience with the swine flu vaccine already, extending over years and hundreds of millions of delivered doses. It is not untested. Far from it.

The most rational thing to do at this moment, given what we know and don't know, is to get vaccinated with both seasonal flu and swine flu vaccines. That's what I'm going to do. I already got my seasonal flu shot and I'll wait in line for my turn for the swine flu vaccine and get it as soon as I can. You not only protect yourself but you help prevent spread of flu to others.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

News from Dr. Plait

Why I’m pro-vax

Regular readers know that Dr. Joe Albietz sits in very rare company — among people I call heroes. He is smart, wise, funny, a great doctor, and he cares passionately about not just saving lives, but saving those of little kids: he’s a pediatrician who works at a pediatric intensive care unit in Denver.

I don’t use arguments from authority, but Joe walks the walk. He has a tremendous amount of experience dealing with children and their illnesses. And that’s why when he talks about why vaccines are so important, everyone should listen.

If you think vaccines are an evil conspiracy, are designed to make us sick, are filled with toxins, are a bad thing, then spend 6 minutes and 53 seconds educating yourself.

Because you’re wrong.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Rise of the Citizen Doctor

Welcome to a new age of amateur scientists and quack healers. Thanks media!
By Shannon Rupp, 5 Oct 2009, TheTyee.ca

While mass media are filled with discussions of the powers and perils of "Citizen Journalists," little is written about a much more valuable trend: the rise of the Citizen Doctor.

Vaccination-denier Jenny McCarthy fits the bill. She's the former Playboy Playmate who built a new career, on CNN's Larry King and elsewhere, claiming her son's autism is the result of the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella). She's busy insisting that your child could be next despite the fact that the cause of autism is unknown and other parents of autistic children consider her to be a nutty loose cannon.

Oprah fits the bill. She provides cheerleading and a platform for the likes of McCarthy and enthusiastic cougar Suzanne Somers, whose stay-young-forever campaign features hormone therapies linked to cancer. Newsweek went to town on Lady O in the spring with "Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures & You."

Sniffles? Bend over please
The Huffington Post, which runs the words of the ambitious willing to work for free, is like the bible for Citizen Doctors. A (very cranky) Rahul K. Parikh offers an M.D.'s view on this in his Salon piece discussing how the Huffpo advocates practices like giving enemas to prevent flu. (Suddenly vaccines look attractive.)

Closer to home, Citizen Doctors can get training in the magical thinking of their choice at public institutions. The Vancouver School Board, for example, has offered courses in "aura reading" and "face reflexology" which can be cobbled into a certificate and gives Citizen Doctors a kind of authority.

Credentials are important to non-celeb Citizen Doctors, I've noticed. So supplying the amateurs with pseudo-academic cred has become big business for continuing education departments in universities and colleges, as well as in the private degree mills.

Bringing down public health costs
In B.C., the Health Professionals Act covers many of the Citizen Doctor groups, all of whom seem to be lobbying to expand their "scope of practice." In April, B.C. was the first province to grant naturopaths -- who practice, among other things, a form of magic known as homeopathy -- the right to prescribe those science-based drugs they used to despise.

It's genius! Naturopaths charge users about $100 a visit. In effect, people who were clogging up the public medical system are being directed into a user-pay system -- and with the enthusiastic support of some of the public, no less. (I bet the move even earned the Liberals a few votes in the last election.)

Kudos to the government strategists on this one. And with that in mind, I say we include all the Citizen Doctors under the umbrella of this act. Just think of the benefits to provincial coffers if we embrace those privately funded "wellness" experts currently on the fringes, like colonic-cleansers and shamans (shamen? shapersons?).

Survival of the fittest
Although I wonder whether chiropractors should remain in that pool, given that they may actually be costing the healthcare system money. Last year an Alberta woman with post-neck-cracking paralysis launched a half-million dollar class action suit against chiropractors and the province. Her claim is based on a decade of research connecting chiropractic neck adjustments to strokes.

In July, the Alberta court decided the provincial government can't be added to the suit -- and personally, I hope the courts kick this whiner to the curb. Since the hazards of the subluxation crowd are well-publicized, she shouldn't be surprised at the "treatment" she received when she opted for spinal manipulations in service of "wellness".

Friends and colleagues consider my enthusiasm for quack therapy a betrayal of my expensive, publicly-subsidized education, but really it's the result thereof. Embracing Citizen Doctors makes sense in terms of both economics and evolutionary biology.

Consider the sort of people inclined to use "complementary medicine". Exactly. Not only does encouraging them to go for bone breathing shorten the medical queues for the rest of us, but it will also ultimately improve the gene pool.

"You little eugenicist you!" my friends snap. (They're exaggerating: I prefer the term logician.)
Think about it: Citizen Doctors are a clever solution to everything from surgery waiting lists to over-population. Not to mention reducing the pressure those greying Boomers are about to put on pension plans.

Band-aid and comfort
I'll accept that the rise of Citizen Doctors is creating a kind of two-tier medical system -- one I can celebrate because its participants are self-selecting.

Of course taxpayers should demand that public healthcare dollars be restricted to funding therapies that work -- for one thing, they tend to cost less than quackery. But if consumers like myth-and-magic, why shouldn't they have easy access to merchants who sell nonsense? No one prevents diet companies from seducing the public. Or cosmetics companies. They trade in fraud too. Or perhaps "hope" is better word? But it amounts to the same thing.

We all know the facts. Doctors brandish overwhelming evidence that avoiding smoking, booze and other drugs, getting proper nutrition along with adequate exercise, being vigilant about preventative health care such as vaccines and check-ups for fatal-but-treatable diseases will give most of us a healthy 75 years. (No one said anything about happy, people, just disease-free.)
Which is what I reminded an acquaintance who ventured that my "opinion" about her quack therapy of choice (reiki) was wrong. (I have no more of an opinion about reiki than I have about the flatness of the earth. I've never done experiments to confirm whether the earth is round, but I trust the evidence of people whose life's work it is to have done the research.)

"I feel reiki is important to my wellness," she said.

I'm sure she does. But I asked her why, if she's concerned about her health, she doesn't lose 30 pounds and stop guzzling wine like it's water -- there's hard evidence both practices would improve her so-called state of wellness.

I didn't get an answer.

Road to wellness too steep?
On the bright side, maybe time spent getting reiki distracts her from drinking? And that's just the kind of benefit I feel quack therapy can offer. Without alternative medicine to support her ostrich-like stance, she would be in her GP's office regularly, demanding meaningless MRIs, whining about feeling lousy, yada yada yada. Costly. And pointless. She doesn't want to do the hard work necessary for good health. But she is willing to pay for the illusion she's doing something productive. So why shouldn't we empower the sellers of such socially-useful deceptions?

Hail Oprah and bring on the bone breathers, I say. Not only will Citizen Doctors improve our fitness as a species, they'll save us a few bucks while doing it.

Monday, October 05, 2009

New Study on Autism (It's not the vaccines)

I fully admit, right up front, this is one study.

This is a partial quote, but it's the point. Autism hasn't necessarily suddenly reached a critical mass, according to these findings. Only the tolerance, understanding and diagnosis has increased. Instead of the blame-the-parents, electroshock therapy, institutionalization and/or lobotomies that happened before, the medical community have come out of the dark ages and started to once again "notice" that autism and other spectrum disorders seem to run in families. In other words, it's genetic. This study, along with the genetic support, seems to indicate that autism incidences are actually falling.

It also seems to indicate that, and I can't stress this enough, IT'S NOT THE VACCINES.

On Sept. 22, England's National Health Service (NHS) released the first study of autism in the general adult population. The findings confirm the intuitive assumption: that ASD is just as common in adults as it is in children. Researchers at the University of Leicester, working with the NHS Information Center found that roughly 1 in 100 adults are on the spectrum — the same rate found for children in England, Japan, Canada and, for that matter, New Jersey.

This finding would also appear to contradict the commonplace idea that autism rates have exploded in the two decades. Researchers found no significant differences in autism prevalence among people they surveyed in their 20s, 30s, 40s, right up through their 70s. "This suggests that the factors that lead to developing autism appear to be constant," said Dr. Terry Brugha, professor of psychiatry at the University of Leicester and lead author of the study. "I think what our survey suggests doesn't go with the idea that the prevalence is rising."

In England, where there is widespread suspicion that the childhood vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella has led to an explosion in autism cases, the study was hailed as part of a growing body of evidence that the vaccine, which was introduced in the 1988, is not to blame.

Friday, October 02, 2009

H1N1 Mortality Rates

A quick study about the virulence of H1N1 is out, and I wanted to share this, as well as a few other thoughts. First, understand the three main ways that the flu can kill you:
Influenza lethality is due to three main causes: First, direct viral origin, leading to viral pneumonia of high severity, with an acute respiratory distress syndrom (ARDS), associated with 30 to 50% lethality in intensive Care Unit (ICU) [1]; Second, bacterial surinfection, due to pneumococal, staphylococal, streptococal, or meningococal pneumonia, usely curable with appropriate antibiotics, provided they are administered early enough; and Third, decompensation of severe underlying conditions, often in elderly people or in vulnerable chronic patients.
What is of concern from the article is this passage:
New Caledonia and Mauritius figures are consistant to a rough estimate of about 1 death from ARDS due to H1N1pdm per 10,000 infections, i.e. a virulence of an order of magnitude of 100 times that observed for seasonal strains.

Now this is very important to understand. This is the ARDS related deaths, not the ones that are attributed to flu that strikes down people in numbers of about 30,000+ in the US each year. We probably will not see 3,000,000+ flu deaths in the US because of these numbers. First of all, as reported, the 30,000+ number is sketchy reporting in the media, and are not all ARDS related. Secondly, we actually do have a vaccine for this strain, and that should help a great deal.

HOWEVER, one of the things that this virus has shown is a greater effect on the young and healthy. Much like the 1918 flu pandemic. So those of you who say, "I never get sick." or "I have a strong immune system." or something along those lines, you may need to be extra careful this flu season. In layman terms, this virus can cause your immune system to go into overdrive, and afflict you with ARDS. Your strong immune system may be your biggest weakness and liability this year. Please take all the prcations that you can. If you feel ill, do not go out in public. Wash your hands often. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze. AND GET VACCINATED! If not to save yourself, to save those around you. Who knows, you could end up saving the life of a loved one even.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Today in the News (1 Oct 09)

Okay, I just ran into this article on National Geographic. Of course, the media will distort and misinterpret what the findings actually mean (perhaps like they did with the Ida fossil). I will again urge caution in making any conclusions regarding the origins of humans which the evidence doesn't support. However, I am excited about the prospects of new information about our evolution coming to light. I think that's a good thing, and gives us a better understanding.

Here is an excerpt from the article on NatGeo:

Scientists today announced the discovery of the oldest fossil skeleton of a human ancestor. The find reveals that our forebears underwent a previously unknown stage of evolution more than a million years before Lucy, the iconic early human ancestor specimen that walked the Earth 3.2 million years ago (interactive time line: how the new discovery changes human evolutionary theory).

The centerpiece of a treasure trove of new fossils, the skeleton—assigned to a species called Ardipithecus ramidus—belonged to a small-brained, 110-pound (50-kilogram) female nicknamed "Ardi." (See pictures of Ardipithecus ramidus.)

The fossil puts to rest the notion, popular since Darwin's time, that a chimpanzee-like missing link—resembling something between humans and today's apes—would eventually be found at the root of the human family tree. Indeed, the new evidence suggests that the study of chimpanzee anatomy and behavior—long used to infer the nature of the earliest human ancestors—is largely irrelevant to understanding our beginnings.

I urge you to read the whole thing, and enjoy some of the interactive material.