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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McDonald's Just Banned Antibiotic-Laced Chicken. Here's Why That Matters.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 6:49 PM EST

This week, McDonald's pledged to phase out serving chicken raised on antibiotics that can also be used to treat humans. To understand the giant implications this has for the meat industry, consider my colleague Tom Philpott's previous reporting on the topic. For starters, the livestock industry uses an astounding four-fifths of all antibiotics consumed in the United States. Mostly, these drugs are used not to treat infections but to promote growth in animals.

There is evidence that livestock antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistance, lessening the effectiveness of drugs that are medically important to  humans. And scientists have observed so-called "superbugs" migrating from farms to outside communities. It's a major problem—indeed, scientists predict that antibiotic failure will kill 20 million people by 2050. And yet, despite all this, the government still allows livestock producers to dose their animals with antibiotics.

McDonald's chicken move is a tacit acknowledgement that antibiotics are a precious resource. And considering that the chain serves 68 million people a day in practically every nation on Earth, it sends a powerful message indeed.

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6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 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.

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

| Thu Jan. 22, 2015 6:00 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."

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