Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 7:00 AM EST

The current outbreak of measles that began in California has sickened 86 people and landed 30 babies in home isolation. The California Department of Health has issued an official warning that "any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated."

Not everyone is so concerned. In a Facebook post on January 16, celebrity pediatrician Robert "Dr. Bob" Sears encouraged his followers not to "let anyone tell you you should live in fear of" measles. "Ask any Grandma or Grandpa (well, older ones anyway)," he wrote, "and they'll say 'Measles? So what? We all had it. It's like Chicken pox.'"

Well, Dr. Bob is wrong—measles is serious business. Consider these facts:

  1. Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it infects about 90 percent of people who come into contact with it. The virus can survive on surfaces or even in the air for up to two hours. That means that if an unvaccinated person happens to pass through a room where someone with measles was a few hours before, he or she has a very high chance of contracting the disease. 
  2. Some people who get measles become seriously ill. Before the advent of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people contracted measles each year in the United States. Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized, 4,000 developed the life-threatening brain condition encephalitis, and 400 to 500 died.
  3. Almost everyone needs to be vaccinated for measles in order to protect the most vulnerable people. The epidemiological concept of "herd immunity" means that enough people in a given community are immunized so that people who can't get vaccinated—infants that are too young to receive vaccines, people who can't get vaccinated because their immune systems are not strong enough, and the small number of people for whom the vaccine doesn't work—are protected. The threshold for herd immunity varies by disease; for measles, it's 92 to 94 percent.
  4. In some places in the United States, MMR vaccination rates among kindergartners aren't anywhere near the herd immunity threshold. In Marin County, California, only 80 percent of students are up to date on their vaccinations. In Nevada County, California, the figure is 73 percent. New York magazine reported last year that dozens of New York City private schools had immunization rates below 70 percent. (Californians can check rates at individual schools here.)
  5. Worldwide, measles is far from eradicated. According to the CDC, in 2013, more than 60 percent of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia Nigeria, and Pakistan were not adequately vaccinated against measles. Seventy percent of measles deaths worldwide occurred in those countries.
  6. Measles could make a major comeback in the United States. It's happened in other developed nations: In the mid-1990s, UK public health officials considered measles eradicated in the country—but in 2008, because of low vaccination rates, measles once again hit endemic status. Between 2008 and 2011, France saw more than 20,000 cases of measles—after virtual elimination of the disease just a few years before.

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Are You at Risk for a Heart Attack? The Answer May Lie in Your Twitter Stream

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Of the many illnesses that plague Americans, heart disease is the deadliest—and one of the toughest to predict. Epidemiologists have long used surveys and clinical data to tease out genetic factors from lifestyle risks such as diet, smoking, and stress, with little success. But a new study shows that there might be a better tool to assess heart disease: Twitter.

A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Science analyzed tweets and health data from 1,300 counties across the United States. The researchers found that negative tweets—those expressing fatigue, hostility, and stress—were associated with elevated risk of coronary heart disease (the medical term for clogged arteries) in the counties where the writers of those tweets lived. High volumes of tweets expressing optimism, excitement, ambition, and activity, meanwhile, correlated with lower than average rates of heart disease.

Here are some word clouds with examples of language that predicted higher and lower levels of disease:

Psychological Science

What's more, the researchers found that the language used in tweets correlates much more closely with heart disease rates than traditional predictive factors such as your income and education level, your weight, and even whether you are a smoker:

Psychological Science

Lead author Johannes Eichstaedt, a psychological scientist at University of Pennsylvania, described Twitter as "the perfect tool for figuring out something like heart disease." Researchers have long suspected connections between emotional states and heart disease risk. And while it's not surprising that people with high levels of stress and anger would be at higher risk than their mellower, happier peers, researchers have traditionally relied on surveys to evaluate people's psychological well being. The problem is that survey-based studies can take years, and people aren't always honest about their feelings. Which makes Twitter a researcher's treasure trove. "Twitter is where people talk about themselves, where they express their emotions candidly," Eichstaedt says.

Here's a map showing coronary heart disease deaths by county, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Psychological Science, CDC

Now compare it with this map, which predicts rates of heart disease based on tweet language:

Psychological Science, Twitter

Another bonus of using Twitter as an epidemiological tool: It's much easier and cheaper than going door to door or calling people to conduct surveys. "If I wanted to repeat this analysis I could do it in an afternoon," says Eichstaedt. "With surveys, that would take a year."

No, You Shouldn't Let Fears of a Scary Nervous System Disease Stop You From Getting a Flu Shot

| Mon Jan. 19, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Despite abundant evidence that flu vaccines are safe and effective, only about a third of Americans get the shots each season. Public health experts believe that one reason for the low immunization rates is misinformation about side effects of the vaccine. One is the belief that the vaccine can actually give you the flu (false); another is that it can cause autism in children (also false, as we've said many times).

"Your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

Add that to the worry that it will cause a rare but serious nervous-system disorder called Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS), an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the nervous system, resulting in muscle weakness, or even temporary paralysis. This fear is not completely unfounded—several studies, including a recent one by Italian researchers about the 2010-2011 vaccine—have found that getting a flu shot can indeed very slightly elevate one's risk of contracting the disease, by about one additional case per million people.

But here's where things get complicated: While it's true that the flu vaccine can raise your GBS risk, so can the flu itself. So which is more likely to lead to GBS: Getting the vaccine or getting the flu?

That's the question that Steven Hawken and Kumanan Wilson, epidemiologists from The Ottawa Hospital, set out to answer. The researchers developed a calculator that took into account baseline GBS risk (overall, it's about 10 in a million, though it varies with age and sex—GBS affects more men than women and more elderly people than young adults and children), vaccine effectiveness, and overall incidence of flu. Their findings: For most people, in a flu season where the flu incidence is greater than 5 percent and the vaccine is more than 60 percent effective, says Wilson, "your risk of GBS actually goes down when you get the vaccine because it prevents the flu."

That's good news in most years, when the flu vaccine is well over 60 percent effective. Here's the problem: This year's flu vaccine is only about 23 percent effective. Still, according to Wilson, while this year's total flu incidence isn't yet known, it appears to be greater than that of an average year—much higher than 5 percent. That means that even with the reduced effectiveness of the vaccine, the overall GBS risk is likely still greater for people who contract the flu than for those who get immunized, says Wilson.

What's more, he adds, it's important to keep in mind that the risk of serious complications from the flu outweighs that of acquiring GBS. Last year, according to the CDC, 9,635 people were hospitalized with the flu in the United States. According to the CDC there are between 3,000-6,000 cases of GBS annually (though no hospitalization data is available). Most of those cases aren't caused by flu vaccines or the flu itself; the most common cause of GBS is infection with the bacterium Campylobacter jejeuni, usually the result of eating contaminated food.

The takeaway: The GBS risk from the flu itself is most likely greater than that of the vaccine. And while GBS can be a scary disease, it's much less common than scary complications FROM the flu.

3 Medical Conditions That Bacon Can Cure

| Wed Jan. 14, 2015 7:00 AM EST

As we all know, the internet is obsessed with bacon. Physicians, however, are usually less bullish about the delicious yet notoriously artery-clogging treat. Until now: Over at the medical blog KevinMD, Dr. Jennifer Gunter combs the scientific literature and turns up three actual medical conditions that bacon can help treat: 

  1. Nosebleeds. Last October, Stanford otolaryngologist Ian Humphreys developed a nasal tampon made out of bacon that cured a young girl's bloody nose, an accomplishment for which he was awarded a 2014 IgNobel Prize in medicine. "Apparently the high salt content of bacon is believed to induce swelling which causes the blood vessels to constrict slowing the flow of blood and helping clotting," writes Gunter. When Humphreys won the IgNobel, Robert Jackler, chair of Stanford's otolaryngology department, told Stanford's Scope medical blog, "We are squealing with pride."
  2. An incredibly disgusting-sounding infection called furuncular myiasis in which the larvae of an insect called Dermatobia hominis nest in the human soft tissue or skin, resulting in boils and sometimes tissue destruction. Shudder. "The treatment largely consists of manually picking out the larvae with tweezers," writes Gunter. "Apparently bacon fat can be used as bait to lure the larvae to the skin surface for faster and more effective removal."
  3. Scabies. Apparently, bacon fat was once used in topical sulfur and salicylic acid creams used to treat this itchy and highly contagious skin infection. A 1991 study compared the bacon fat formulation to the more modern cold cream version and finds, Gunter writes, that "while the cold cream combination was 100% effective versus 88 percent for the bacon fat base the authors noted that the bacon fat concoction was 238 times less expensive than the cheapest scabicidal medication in the U.S."

So there you have it: bacon as medicine. Something to keep in mind if you have any left over after you make that gross bacon lattice thing for your Super Bowl party.

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