Measles is making a comeback: The extremely contagious and potentially deadly disease was eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to a highly effective vaccine and laws requiring kids to be vaccinated before starting school. But in recent years, it has become easier for parents to opt out—and vaccination rates are slipping. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a major spike in cases in 2014, and 2015 might be even worse—in just over a month, there have been 102 cases (and counting) reported across 14 states, mostly connected to December's Disneyland outbreak.
As we reported yesterday, Anne Schuchat, an assistant surgeon general and the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stressed that measles could get "a foothold in the United States and [become] endemic again" if people don't get vaccinated.
Overall, national vaccination rates seem high: The median rate of coverage for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, administered to most before entry into kindergarten, was 94.7 percent for the 2013-14 school year. But, as Schuchat points out, the rate is lower in communities where unvaccinated families tend to cluster. In some areas, low rates might have more to do with access to clinics than with beliefs about vaccinations.
"The national estimates hide what's going on state to state. The state estimates hide what's going on community to community. And within communities there may be pockets," Schuchat said. "It's one thing if you have a year where a number of people are not vaccinating, but year after year in terms of the kids that are exempting, you do start to accumulate."
In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declaredthat measles had been eliminated in the United States. Now it's making a comeback, in large part due to parents who refuse to vaccinate their children.
This year's outbreak—more than 100 cases reported across 14 states—follows a dramatic rise in measles cases in 2014: 644 cases across 27 states. In light of the the potentially deadly disease's return, public health officials are expressing concern about rising vaccine exemption rates. Citing the risks of not vaccinating, Anne Schuchat, an assistant surgeon general and the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stressed that measles could get "a foothold in the United States and [become] endemic again."
Every state requires children to get the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine before they enter kindergarten. (The vaccine is usually administered in two doses after a child's first birthday.) All states offer medical exemptions for kids with allergies, cancer, or compromised immune systems. Most offer religious exemptions as well. And now a growing number of states—20 as of this year—permit personal belief exemptions (PBEs) that allow parents to not to vaccinate for reasons of philosophy or conscience.
Nonmedical vaccine exemptions—the rules that allow parents to opt their kids out of required vaccines based on beliefs—are on the rise. Over the past four school years, there's been a 37 percent increase in exemptions filed. Between the the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, the rate of exemptions for incoming kindergartners jumped 30 percent. The CDC reports that 85 percent of people who go unvaccinated do so for personal or religious beliefs.
According to a 2012 study led by Saad Omer, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University, allowing PBEs leads to fewer kids getting vaccinated. Opt-out rates in states with PBEs are more than double those in states with religious exemptions alone. These vaccination gaps result in higher rates of diseases like measles and whooping cough, especially in states where PBEs are easily obtained.
"We do know that states that have philosophical exemptions tend to have not only high rates of exemption but also high rates of disease," Omer says. But some states grant exemptions more readily than others. In states such as Colorado, a parent's signature is all that is required. But in states like Arkansas, parents must first establish why they are seeking an exemption or receive counseling from a health care provider. "We have found that the more difficult the requirements are, the lower the rate of exemption and the lower the rate of disease," Omer says.
Looking at data from 1991 to 2005, Omer's team found that states with easy exemption procedures had whooping cough rates up to 90 percent higher than states that made it more difficult to get exemptions.
"States that have philosophical exemptions tend to have not only high rates of exemption but also high rates of disease."
Last year, nationwide vaccination coveragewas at about 95 percent, and the median national rate of childrenwith PBEs was 1.7 percent. Thatmight not seem so bad. Yet because unvaccinated kids are often clustered together, one transmission of a highly contagious disease like measles can put many people at risk and set off a series of outbreaks like those happening now.
These "clusters of vaccine refusal" put two groups at risk, Omer explains. First are people who are not vaccinated, which may include infants and children with compromised immune systems. The other is people who have gotten their shots but did not get immunity—something that affects about 1 in 10 vaccine recipients, even with the most effective vaccines."Even when it is a good vaccine and someone has done the right thing and gotten their kid vaccinated, there is still a chance that they will be unprotected," Omer says. "So, their risk not only depends on their own vaccination status—but also what is happening around them."
As Schuchat noted earlier this week, "The national estimates hide what's going on state to state. The state estimates hide what's going on community to community. And within communities there may be pockets. It's one thing if you have a year where a number of people are not vaccinating, but year after year in terms of the kids that are exempting, you do start to accumulate."
Drone Porn®: This one was bound to happen. A registered trademark covering video and "electronic, electric, and digital transmission of voice, data, and images, all in the field of adult entertainment." (See also: "Drone Boning"—definitely NSFW.)
Loan By Drone®: Predatory lending meets Predators with "payday advances, payday loans, short term loans, installment loans, title loans, title pawns, check cashing and stored value card services delivered via drone." The business doesn't appear to have started yet, but there are already places that will loan you drones or the money to buy them.
Drones Gone Wild®: "Entertainment services in the nature of an ongoing reality based television program." Thankfully, there doesn't appear to be any reality TV project with this name yet, but there are some interesting YouTubevideos.
DroneRepellent®: This idea for "computer software and hardware for use in diverting unmanned aerial vehicles from airplanes" seems like a pretty solid idea, especially considering some of these recent close calls. The trademark holder, Infatics Inc., also has a service helping people track and control their small drones.
Game of Drones®: Though it also encompasses educational services "in the field of unmanned aerial vehicle use," this trademark is currently being used to selll quadcopters designed to "resist fire, water and extreme impacts."
Last November, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a list of 193 incidents of "drone misbehavior" (as the New York Times put it) reported to air traffic control officials in 2014. The list didn't include incidents reported to law enforcement, so it's not necessarily comprehensive. But it does offer a glimpse of the challenges of incorporating flying robot vehicles into everyday life.
Some highlights from the report (see the full list at the end of this post):
Drones and sports: There were more than a half-dozen incidents of people flying drones near crowded sporting events. Drones were spotted near games at the University of Arizona in Tucson; Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee (twice); Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin; the Big House in Ann Arbor during a University of Michigan game; FedEx Field during a Washington [REDACTED] game; and Citi Field during a Mets game.
Drone strike: Of all the incidents listed in the FAA report, just one involved a drone striking a person. In October, a small drone flying low over the Daytona Beach Municipal Stadium struck "a citizen causing (a) minor abrasion."
Close calls: One of the obvious concerns is that some yahoo (or even a skilled pilot) will fly drone into a aircraft with actual people on board. The FAA report lists several close calls and near misses in 2014. On September 30, the pilot of an inbound regional jet reported a flying device that almost hit the plane at 4,000 feet, just north of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. In August, a medevac helicopter in Las Vegas reported almost getting hit by a drone at 200 feet as it was trying to leave a hospital. In June, a helicopter pilot in Stockton, California, reported almost hitting two remote controlled gliders at about 750 feet. And in March, a pilot in Tallahassee, Florida, said he almost struck a "remote controlled aircraft" while flying at 2,300 feet. One pilot had to take evasive action in the skies above Oklahoma City in October when a two-foot wide drone came within 10 to 20 feet of his plane at roughly 4,800 feet.
High altitude: There are at least 18 incidents involving drones flying above 4,000 feet, with some as high as 15,000 feet. (Most of the drones available to the general public fall into the FAA's Model Aircraft category, which means they're supposed to stay under 400 feet.) In a report from last May, a pilot approaching LaGuardia Airport reported seeing a 10- to 15-foot-wide drone at 5,500 feet above the southern tip of Manhattan.
Grounded: In August, a pilot was arrested after getting stuck in a tree at Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC after climbing up to retrieve a crashed drone.
Today, Barrett Brown, a journalist and activist accused of working with Anonymous, was sentenced to 63 months in federal prisonand fined $890,000. Brown has been in custody since September 2012, when he was arrested for threatening an FBI agent on YouTube. Additional charges followed, including allegedly hindering the arrest of Jeremy Hammond—who was convicted in 2013 of hacking the intelligence firm Statfor—and trafficking in stolen credit card information after he posted a link to the hacked Stratfor files. The original slate of charges against Brown could have resulted in more than 100 years in prison.
Many of the original charges against Brown were dropped. Today's sentencing followed his pleading guilty to obstructing Hammond's arrest and hiding a laptop during an FBI search of his mother's home. He will likely spend somewhere between one and three years behind bars due to time served and a potential supervised release.
Brown's case spawned a campaign to free him that focused on the First Amendment issues raised by the feds' aggressive prosecution. As Kevin Drum wrote about the case in 2013, "This is almost a textbook case of prosecutorial overreach…[T]he government considers him a thorn in their side and wants to send a message to anyone else planning to follow in Brown's footsteps. That just ain't right."
Brown addressed these issues in the statement he made prior to his sentencing this morning. "This is not the rule of law, Your Honor," Brown said, "it is the rule of Law Enforcement, and it is very dangerous."