Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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5 New York Epidemics That Were Way Worse Than Ebola Will Be

| Fri Oct. 24, 2014 3:18 PM EDT
board of health
An 1865 cartoon from Harper's Weekly ridicules the incompetence of the New York City Board of Health, first established to fight yellow fever. US National Library of Medicine

Ebola has arrived in New York City. So should residents here be worried about a widespread outbreak? Almost certainly not: The disease is not airborne, and infected patients are only contagious once they show symptoms. Craig Spencer, the infected doctor in New York, has said he didn't have symptoms Wednesday night when he rode the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn and went bowling. Three people he came into contact with, who have not shown symptoms, have been placed in precautionary quarantine. And unlike West Africa, where health care is sparse and low-quality, the US is well equipped to handle cases of the virus; the hospital where Spencer is being treated has been preparing to treat Ebola patients. (Public heath officials in the city expected cases of Ebola to turn up sooner or later.)

But the prospect of a deadly disease outbreak in the Big Apple is still pretty scary, and the city hasn't always dodged the pathogen bullet. Here are a few epidemics in New York that were far worse than Ebola is likely to be.

Yellow fever (1795-1803):

The wharf in Philadelphia where yellow fever cases were first identified. Wikimedia Commons

The city's first health department was created in 1793 to block boats from Philadelphia, which at the time was in the grips of a yellow fever epidemic that left 5,000 dead. The tactic didn't work: By 1795 cases began to appear in Manhattan, and by 1798 the disease had reached epidemic proportions there, with 800 deaths that year. Several thousand more died over the next few years. (The disease causes victims' to vomit black bile and their skin to turn yellowish, and the fatality rate without treatment is as high as 50 percent.) This was no small blow for a city that at the time had only about 60,000 residents. As is the case today with Ebola in West Africa, misinformation was a big part of the problem: Doctors at the time had only just begun to speculate that the virus was carried by mosquitoes (other theorized sources included unsanitary conditions in slums and rotting coffee). Little effort was made to publicize the epidemic for fear of a mass exodus from the city, according to Baruch College. Today yellow fever is extremely rare in the United States but still kills 30,000 people every year, 90 percent of whom are in Africa.

Cholera (mid-1800s):

cholera
An 1865 poster from the New York City Sanitary Commission offers advice on how to avoid contracting cholera. Wikimedia Commons

By the 1830s New York was a booming metropolis of 200,000, with swarms of newcomers arriving daily on boats from Europe. When word of a raging cholera epidemic in Europe reached the city's Board of Health, it instituted quarantines on incoming ships and tried to clean up the filthy streets. But again the board was reluctant to make public announcements, this time to avoid disrupting trade, according to city records. One resident claimed the board was "more afraid of merchants than of lying." By June 1832, the disease, which causes severe diarrhea and can kill within hours if untreated, arrived in New York via boats traveling down the Hudson River from Quebec. Within two months, 3,500 people were dead—mostly poor Irish immigrants and blacks living in the city's slums. Outbreaks occurred again in 1849, with some 5,000 deaths, and in 1866, with 1,100 deaths

Polio (1916):

A physical therapist works with two children with polio in 1963. Charles Farmer/CDC

New York City was the epicenter of an outbreak of polio in 1916 that began with a handful of cases reported to a clinic in Brooklyn. The disease, which advances from feverlike symptoms to paralysis and sometimes death, ultimately spread to 9,000 New Yorkers and caused 2,400 deaths. Across the Northeast, the infection toll climbed to 23,000 by the fall. The disease remained prevalent in the United States until the 1954 introduction of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. Polio is now extremely rare here. But worldwide, it still infects 200,000 people every year, particularly in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Influenza (1918):

influenza
In 1918, soldiers with influenza are treated at an Army hospital in Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

In August 1918, a Norwegian ship called the Bergensfjord pulled into New York Harbor carrying 21 people infected with a new and virulent strain of the flu. Over the next several weeks, dozens more arrived, mostly on ships from Europe, and sick passengers were quarantined in a hospital just blocks from the modern-day Bellevue, where Spencer is currently being treated. Those unfortunate sailors were just the first in what would become the deadliest disease outbreak in the city's history to that date. Over 30,000 deaths were recorded by November—the actual number was likely much higher—including 12,300 during the first week of November alone. One health worker visited a family in lower Manhattan and found an infant dead in its crib and all seven other family members severely ill.

Other nearby cities fared even worse: The death rate in New York was 4.7 per 1,000 cases, compared to 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia, according to the National Institutes of Health. That may not sound like a lot, given that the Ebola death rate is closer to 50 percent, but because influenza is so easily spread it can infect a much greater number of people. Globally, the 1918 flu killed between 50100 million people, the worst public health crisis in modern times. Today, the flu is still considered the greatest infectious disease risk for Americans, killing between 3,000 and 50,000 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, it's possible that more people could die from the flu this year in America than have died worldwide from Ebola during this outbreak. And yet only 1 in 3 Americans get a flu shot. Get a flu shot, people!

HIV/AIDS (1981-present):

An AIDS poster from New York City in the 1980s US National Library of Medicine

The scourge of HIV/AIDS is the most familiar epidemic for modern New Yorkers, beginning with the June 1981 discovery of 41 cases of a rare cancer among gay men across the country. Throughout the 1980s, campaigns by the city encouraged New Yorkers to use protection during sex and not to share needles or use intravenous drugs. By 1987, according to city records, $400 million had been spent on AIDS services. But activists for AIDS rights groups like ACT UP accused city officials, led by Mayor Ed Koch, of dragging their feet and ignoring the true scale of the crisis. It took until the mid-'90s for anti-retroviral drugs to become widely available. Today, for people who have access to adequate health care, HIV is often manageable. But to date, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have been killed by AIDS-related maladies, according to state health statistics. Despite recent advances in medical treatment, infection rates are still high in New York, disproportionately affecting racial minorities and gay men.

Now Congressional Republicans Are Digging Through Scientists' Grant Proposals

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 4:22 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has led an unprecedented investigation into the scientific operations of the National Science Foundation.

When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

Of course, the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.

Smith's committee is responsible for setting the NSF's budget. But in the last year, the Congressman has gone to unprecedented lengths to scrutinize the agency's scientific operations. His staffers are sifting through the archives of NSF grant proposal materials, which are normally kept strictly confidential to preserve scientific objectivity. They're looking for projects to highlight as evidence that NSF is wasting money on research that, from their view, aren't in the "national interest."

A great recent story in Science lays out Smith's strategy:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade…

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel's Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee's ranking Democrat] and the panel's Democrats, NSF's leadership, and the academic research community…

Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress's oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The tally of projects under scrutiny by Smith's team has now grown to 47 (a listing of them is linked to in the Science story above). On one hand, that's a lot. The confidentiality of the NSF review process is a long-established, sacred scientific practice that protects research from bias and makes sure only the cream rises to the top. So any cracks in that firewall, and certainly any whiff of political interference, are of great concern to the scientific community.

On the other hand, the 47 grants represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.

Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."

But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican Congressmen.

"NSF's investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding," she wrote to him on May 19.

In other words, basic science shouldn't be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn't ever going to do much for the US economy, but that doesn't mean it's not in the "national interest" for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.

Hurricane Gonzalo Is Going to Slam Bermuda Today

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

The photo above was taken yesterday by an astronaut on the International Space Station. It shows Hurricane Gonzalo barreling across the Atlantic Ocean toward Bermuda.

Gonzalo, currently a Category 3 hurricane, is expected to make landfall in Bermuda this afternoon before veering back out to sea and away from the US East Coast. AccuWeather.com meteorologists are warning that the damage could be severe, with "a large and life-threatening storm surge [that] could exceed 10 feet and cause a major rise in water levels over coastal areas and causeways."

Stay safe, Bermudans.

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