[Kat Clements | Contributing Writer]
Working out what science stories matter and which ones are just a flash in the pan can be tricky, especially if you don’t have a science background. UniVerse is here to help with our regular roundup of the biggest news in science, environment and health.
Measles strikes across California and beyond
Over Christmas, many parents chose to make Christmas truly magical by taking their kids to Disneyland California. Great! Except that many of those kids hadn’t had the MMR vaccine, which gives immunity to measles, mumps and rubella. The park brought together hundreds of kids in close proximity – just what viruses need.
Southern California is now struggling to contain the worst outbreak of measles for 15 years, with 73 cases ranging in age from seven months to seventy years. Other cases have been reported in seven US states as well as in Mexico. Some of those affected might have been unable to have the MMR jab because of their ages (the vaccine can’t be given to infants under 12 months), or because of pre-existing health conditions, but most of them were unvaccinated simply because their parents had chosen not to give them the jab.
Measles once killed 500 people per year in the US. It still kills in countries with less developed health infrastructures, where the MMR jab is not given routinely. It was declared eradicated in the US in the 90s, and in the UK only 12 people in total have died since 2000 – compared to the year 1980, when there were 26 deaths. In order to achieve “herd immunity”, where the virus can’t spread because the majority of the population are immune, 95% of the population need to be vaccinated. In England, 91% of infants are receiving the vaccine, but that is still not enough, and leaves the population open to outbreaks like this one.
Measles is a highly contagious viral illness which initially manifests as a flu-like cough and fever, followed by the appearance of “Koplik Spots” – blue-white spots on the inside of the mouth. After that, the measles rash begins – a lumpy, itchy, achy cascade of spots, worse than the most painful acne or infected mosquito bite you’ve ever had, which starts behind the ears and spreads to cover the entire body. The entire body. Go look up some pictures if you still don’t think it’s a big deal. And then there’s the dehydration, the fever, and the complications – measles can, and does, lead to pneumonia and encephalitis, which is a bacterial infection in the brain which causes extreme swelling and is often fatal, leaving many survivors severely brain damaged.
So why are people still unvaccinated? The MMR vaccine is offered to all children once they reach 12 months, but parents can still choose to “opt-out” of the injection. And, unfortunately, some people still choose to do so despite the evidence of measles’ danger.
In 1998, a doctor named Andrew Wakefield, together with 12 other doctors, published a paper in the respected journal The Lancet showing a link between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism. Wakefield’s paper presented the case histories of 12 patients who had the MMR vaccine and later developed symptoms of autistic spectrum disorder. The public was shocked and frightened; the press were quick to ride the wave of anti-vaccine fear and puff the story up for all it was worth (for the record, not much).
Wakefield’s claims didn’t last for long. In March 2004, the paper’s authors finally retracted their claims of a causal link between MMR and autism (and bowel disorders, which they also claimed were linked). But the damage was done; in April 2006, the NHS reported the first death from measles for 14 years in Britain.
In 2007, Wakefield and two of his co-authors were charged with serious misconduct by the General Medical Council and, in 2010, he was struck off the register. The Lancet retracted the paper, saying that the results were entirely false.
It has since been widely accepted by medical professionals that almost all of Wakefield’s evidence was falsified; large parts of the medical history of his subjects was altered, and even if it hadn’t been, twelve people is not a statistically significant study. It has now been long accepted in the medical community that there is absolutely no link between the MMR jab and autism.
The C Word
Cancer has, as always, been big in the news this month. First up is the optimistic news that we could beat cancer by 2050, as reported by a team from King’s College London and University College London.
The study, “Overcoming Cancer in the 21st Century” by Taylor et al, is co-written by scientists from both institutes, and it suggests that people under the age of 80, at least, could be safe from cancer in 35 years.
That prediction is based on the way in which deaths have decreased in the past, due to improvements in medicine and care. Deaths have declined by 1% every year since 1990, due to falling smoking rates and increased awareness, among other factors. If that trend continues, say the authors, we could all survive cancer by 2050 – at least until we’re 80.
But they said that that could only happen if more money was invested in research and care, which leads us on to the next big cancer story: the NHS’s decision to no longer fund cancer treatments for dying patients.
25 life-extending drugs have been removed from the NHS’s treatment list, potentially cutting short the lives of many people with terminal cancer. This, most people agree, sucks.
But why have the NHS taken this step? It isn’t, no matter what the tabloids might claim, because French immigrant gay single mothers on benefits need the money for boob jobs. It’s because the NHS is struggling to fund cancer treatment and hard decisions have had to be taken to benefit the greatest number of people.
Although 25 drugs have been removed, 3 have been added, and the prices of several others have been reduced after tough bargaining with pharmaceutical companies. The prescription of some others has been restricted, saving the NHS around £80m per year.
The NHS say that these steps have been taken because some drugs just weren’t worth it. It’s a tough truth to swallow, but sometimes there’s not much that drugs can do for you; and where the medicines weren’t offering much benefit, or cost more than they delivered, or were prolonging life only briefly and painfully, they had to be withdrawn so that other patients could have a better chance.
However, many cancer charities have heavily criticised that decision, saying that potentially hundreds of people will lose out on the care that they need thanks to this cost-saving measure. There’s not really an easy answer to this kind of problem, and there’s not really any way to joke about it either, so let’s move on to some good news.
History is made
In a medical first, doctors at Hammersmith Hospital managed to perform the very first neonate organ transplant. A six day old child who had been stillborn was declared dead after a week on life support, and the parents consented to the child’s liver and kidneys being removed and given to patients in need of new organs.
The reason that this is significant is that baby’s organs are tiny; transplanting them is an incredibly difficult operation. However, young patients needing transplants simply cannot take organs from older donors; the organs are just too big. In addition, the organs of neonates have powerful regenerative properties, which makes them much better for transplantation.
Britain has a dire shortage of organ donors. The current system is opt-in, and most people just don’t think to join the register until it is too late. The use of stillborn babies as donors may seem macabre, but it can be the difference between life and death for other children.
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