My note to the Oregonian about its amazingly bogus reporting on “immunization debates”

The resurgence and outbreak of the most contagious virus on the planet, measles, has led to a swarm of media stories that have tried to report responsibly about the pockets of perpetrators of bogus science.

Even in the face of rock-solid research, done at the population level, proving without question that there is no link between autism and autism spectrum disorder and the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, the naysayers continue to promote ideas that have the same validity as racial eugenics of scientific quacks and Nazi racists. There are many parties who are helping to fan the flames of ignorance that threaten innocent children who have no ability to tell parent deniers that they put infants at serious health risks when they do not have their kids immunized from extremely infectious and very preventable illnesses.

This photo, courtesy of the BBC, shows a vaccine vial for the commonly used vaccine used to prevent the spread of very contagious viral illnesses.

This photo, courtesy of the BBC, shows a vaccine vial for the commonly used vaccine used to prevent the spread of very contagious viral illnesses.

Former Playmate Jenny McCarthy and clusters of deniers on both sides of the political spectrum are partially responsible for the resurgence of measles we are seeing around the country today.

What is particularly irresponsible is when formerly balanced media outlets choose to fan the debate flames to promote their products when there is no scientific or medical basis for claiming the issue is “a debate” as opposed to a public health crisis that requires layers of interventions to ensure the best health outcomes for all of us.

Tonight, I read the Oregonian newspaper’s story seeking to solicit input from science deniers with this astounding headline: “In the debate over vaccines, where do you stand?” At the bottom of the story were numerous blog comments that were not moderated. No surprise the journalistic adventure gave Portland’s now world-famous anti-fluoride, vaccination-denier, and anti-public-health community another platform to spout nonsense. Such sloppy journalism keeps bogus science alive and well, even when quackery like eugenics is now considered bad and un-modern. (In the end, quack science is still quack science.)

The Oregonian newspaper ran this story in its online edition on Feb. 4, 2015, which helps promote skepticism that is thorough debunked as junk science.

The Oregonian newspaper ran this story in its online edition on Feb. 4, 2015, which helps promote unproven public health skepticism that is thoroughly debunked as junk science.

Reporter Kjerstin Gabrielson wrote, “What influenced your decision to immunize or not immunize your children?  Has the recent measles outbreak in the United States swayed your opinion? What concerns do you have about immunizations? What concerns do you have about the diseases vaccines are designed to prevent?”

In response to the Jenny McCarthy style journalism I found, I chose to write this note directly to the reporter. Here it is. I hope she can make amends later for her journalistic transgressions and learn a little bit more the history of communicable diseases in the Oregon, where diseases like smallpox literally helped to wipe out many Native American communities before most white settlers arrived.

Letter Sent Feb. 4, 2015, by email:

Ms. Gabrielson: What exactly were you and your editors possibly thinking framing the public heath issue of a scientifically proven health intervention (MMR vaccination) that is used globally to save lives by giving precedence to  perpetrators of junk science whose ideas have now been thoroughly disproven by peer-reviewed, country-wide, and massive population-based studies showing absolutely no proven link to autism and the MMR vaccine?

Do you even understand what a population-based study is? Do you understand statistical significance or P-values? Do you understand the perpetrator of this bogus original article has been thoroughly debunked? Do you even know the history of this state where infectious diseases literally wiped out entire Native American villages on a scale that makes Ebola look like a mild chest cold?
 
If I were to start claiming, say that European Jewry was responsible for causing World War I and helped to defeat Germany, would you print an article with a headline talking about, tell us your thoughts on the debate about Jews’ role causing WWI. Would you open up your comment blog to Nazis and skinheads who will speak with utter sincerity using widely disproven racial eugenics theory that have the exact same scientific validity as those perpetrated by former Playmate Jenny McCarthy?
 
Wow.
 
Maybe you should learn about what happened to Native Americans in Oregon barely 160 years ago, due to smallpox and malaria. Maybe that might inspire you and your paper to use your brains. Promoting profits for junk reporting at the expense of public health is rather disgraceful if you ask me.
 

Oregon’s smallpox legacy in a state celebrated for vaccination deniers

Smallpox remains the only human disease that has been successfully eradicated. Its scourge has been global, impacting nearly every great civilization from the time of the Pharaohs onward.

Smallpox helped the Spanish invaders conquer the Aztecs in the 1500s; nearly 3 million persons were killed.

In Europe, it reportedly claimed 60 million lives in the 1700s. In the 1500s, up to 3 million Aztecs died after being infected by the conquering Spanish, bringing about the collapse of their culture and civilization more effectively than the violent conquistadores could have ever dreamed. The last reported case occurred in the 1970s. Since that time, the virus has existed only in two highly guarded labs.

Smallpox is also tragically rooted in the meeting of European and Native American cultures, and its horrific impact on the continent’s first peoples underlies the nation’s historic narrative as much as political and economic developments from colonial expansion to industrialization to slavery.

The pilgrims, like the Spanish, brought the dreaded scourge, which immediately took a toll on Native tribes on the Eastern seaboard. The first outbreak claimed 20 of the white settlers’ lives. Founding Father Ben Franklin lost a son to smallpox in 1736. But smallpox more than any army, particularly in the Pacific Northwest in the Oregon territory, made it possible for the young American nation to conquer Native areas, many totally wiped clean of their Native inhabitants. I will talk more about the impacts in Oregon shortly, but first some background on the killer virus.

Smallpox’s enormous role in North American and Native American history

There are two smallpox variants, Variola major, the more severe form, and the less severe Variola minor. Its symptoms include fever and lethargy about two weeks after exposure, followed by a sore throat and vomiting. For those afflicted, a rash would then appear on the face and body, and sores in the mouth, throat, and nose. Infectious pustules would emerge and expand. By the third week, scabs formed and separated from the skin. The virus is spread by respiratory droplets, and also by contaminated bedding and clothes. This was how many historians suspect the disease may have been transmitted to Native Americans in North America.

French Jesuits in Canada in 1625, according to an account by Ian and Jennifer Glynn in The Life and Death of Smallpox, received great hostility from Natives because of the link made between the disease and contact with Europeans. The missionaries reported the local people “observed with some sort of reason that since our arrival in these lands those who had been the nearest to us had happened to be the most ruined by [smallpox], and that whole village of those who had receive us now appeared utterly exterminated.”

The first recorded use of smallpox as a weapon was during the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, when Native tribes during Pontiac’s uprising during the French and Indian war were reportedly given infected blankets by a British general, possibly with the goal of infection, even though scientific knowledge at the time did not fully understand germ theory or microbial infections. However, there was an understanding of how the disease might be spread based on experiences.  Reports also exist of the British attempting to infect colonial areas during the Revolutionary War–all early cases of germ warfare.

Smallpox was reportedly used against the 10,000-man contingent of the Continental Army that invaded British-held Quebec. Of that force, half were stricken by smallpox, and it was theorized the British commander may have intentionally spread it by sending infected persons to Continental Army camps. That army’s commander died, and the force retreated in 1776, keeping the Canadian territories intact and thus giving birth to Canada. Noted John Adams, “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt the heart of stone. The smallpox is 10 times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together.”

Abraham Lincoln supposedly contracted it during the height of the Civil Ware in 1863—the outcome of which could have turned the course of U.S. and global history, had he died. (I for one am glad he survived this.)

The first vaccine, developed in 1770, was derived from cowpox by Edward Jenner. He had observed how a milk maid  was inoculated from the impacts of the more deadline Variola major and minor by a previous exposure to cowpox. It was not until 1947 when a frozen vaccine was introduced globally. After a costly global campaign, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has published an extremely useful illustration and timeline of the history of smallpox in the United states and globally.

A man who caught smallpox in Milwaukee is shown in this 1925 photo.

It was less than 100 years ago smallpox wreaked havoc. A photo provided by Dr. Bennet Lorbar shows a man with pox marks on his body, among the victims of the 1925 Milwaukee outbreak that claimed 87 lives.

Today, many people in the United States, particularly those born after routine smallpox vaccinations were ended in 1972, have no memory of how awful such a disease can be. (The CDC has a plan to vaccinate the entire country should the virus ever break free from its labs.)

This may be a contributing factor to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. It should noted opposition to smallpox vaccination in the United States dates to the 1920s, and opposition even as far back as the first vaccine of Jenners.

Ex-Playmate McCarthy and the vaccination deniers

The most famous case of modern day vaccination denialism is linked to controversies surrounding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and its alleged link to autism and autism spectrum disorder. This bogus claim was completely based on a widely discredited study published by the British medical journal the Lancet in 2004, and then formally retracted in 2010. It was further debunked by extensive population based studies.

Facts, of course, have still not stopped former 1994 Playmate of the year Jenny McCarthy, and the “Green our Vaccines” campaign, from claiming toxins in vaccines cause autism.

Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and have been a Playmate of the Year in 1994?

Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and was not the Playmate of the Year in 1994?

Her campaign of disinformation just got a boost when she was given a national stage by Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC News, which hired the vaccination extremist to its show called The View in mid-July 2013. She begins her post in September.

As expected a chorus of worried public health advocates and policy wonks decried ABC’s crass capitalistic gesture. This made no impact whatsoever on the parent corporation, Disney—all of which might lead a rational person to ask when the Disney-owned ABC News might hire a blond, big-boobed Holocaust denier to co-host a lively, unscripted talk show, so long as she boosted ratings.

Smallpox wiped out Native Americans in state that now has the highest rates of vaccination exemptions

It seems particularly and painfully ironic that the state with the highest rate of parents opting out of childhood vaccinations is Oregon. This is a major public health concern, because when there are fewer people receiving vaccinations, herd immunity is reduced, making it easier for a disease to spread.

Oregon currently has the highest rate of unvaccinated children in the nation, well above the national average of 1.2%.

As of 2013, Oregon schools had the highest rate of non-medical–meaning religious–immunization exemptions for kindergarten age children. An all time high of 6.4% were exempt. That same year the state also recorded the highest rates for pertussis (whooping cough) cases in the United States, for the past 50 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the newsletter called the Lund Report: “In 2013, rates also showed that 17 counties have now surpassed the common 6 percent threshold whereby herd immunity may be compromised for some vaccine-preventable diseases such as pertussis and measles. In 2012, 13 counties were above 6 percent.”

Thanks to a new law signed in July 2013 by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), himself a doctor, it will now be harder for Oregon parents to get exemptions from mandatory immunizations for children enrolling in schools.

Now, flash back more than two centuries, when the scourge of smallpox was first recorded in the Northwest due to trade with Europeans. A smallpox epidemic, starting in the upper Missouri River country, swept through current day Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in 1781–82 with horrific effects. Another scourge of “fever and ague,” likely malaria, ravaged Oregon in 1830–31. Other diseases as tuberculosis, measles, and venereal infections also took a huge toll. Epidemics in fact took an estimated nine of 10 lives of the lower Columbia Indian population between 1830 and 1834.

A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provide historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.

A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provides historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.

In 1834, Dr. John Townsend, in the area that would become the Oregon Territory, wrote of a mass extermination of Native residents, similar in scope to what one today only knows through zombie or science fiction films of recent years like World War Z and I am Legend.

Townsend wrote: “The Indians of the Columbia were once a numerous and powerful people; the shore of the river, for scores of miles, was lined with their villages; the council fire was frequently lighted, the pipe passed round, and the destinies of the nation deliberated upon . . . Now alas! where is he? –gone; —gathered to his fathers and to his happy hunting grounds; his place knows him no more. The spot where once stood the thickly peopled village, the smoke curling and wreathing above the closely packed lodges, the lively children playing in the front, and their indolent parents lounging on their mats, is now only indicated by a heap of undistinguishable ruins. The depopulation here has been truly fearful. A gentleman told me, that only four years ago, as he wandered near what had formerly been a thickly peopled village, he counted no less than sixteen dead, men and women, lying unburied and festering in the sun in front of their habitations. Within the houses all were sick; not one had escaped the contagion; upwards of a hundred individuals, men, women, and children, were writhing in agony on the floors of the houses, with no one to render them any assistance. Some were in the dying struggle, and clenching with the convulsive grasp of death their disease-worn companions, shrieked and howled in the last sharp agony.”

An image the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.

An image shows the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.

While stationed in Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River in 1852 and 1853, future Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant recorded similar devastation: “The Indians, along the lower Columbia as far as the Cascades and on the lower Willamette, died off very fast during the year I spent in that section; for besides acquiring the vices of the white people they had acquired also their diseases. The measles and the small-pox were both amazingly fatal. … During my year on the Columbia River, the smallpox exterminated one small remnant of a band of Indians entirely, and reduced others materially. I do not think there was a case of recovery among them, until the doctor with the Hudson Bay Company took the matter in hand and established a hospital. Nearly every case he treated recovered. I never, myself, saw the treatment described in the preceding paragraph, but have heard it described by persons who have witnessed it. The decimation among the Indians I knew of personally, and the hospital, established for their benefit, was a Hudson’s Bay building not a stone’s throw from my own quarters.”

(For those interested in this topic, they may wish to buy, download, or borrow a study of smallpox’s impact on Native North Americans called Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. One reviewer wrote that smallpox “claimed more lives from the Northern Plains tribes in one year than all the military expeditions ever sent against American Indians.”)

Where is the statue or monument pointing out this critical event in Oregon’s history?

Yet, I could find no record of any statue or memorial in Oregon today that notes this historic tragedy, which depopulated a region and left it wide open for white settlers to inhabit in the mid-1800s. Perhaps if such physical reminders were present, and educational programs to accompany them, there might be a more lively debate in Oregon. But as of now, it is state celebrated for its vaccination deniers and for denying the benefits of community water fluoridation for residents of its major urban center, Portland, for a fourth time since the 1950s.

Maybe a statue honoring ghost villages, dead tribes, and forgotten cultures on the banks of scenic Multnomah River in downtown Portland, could kick off with a special celebrity ceremony. The organizers could host a live broadcast of The View with Jenny McCarthy, in a revealing dress, describing why the state’s residents should keep their children from getting vaccinated from diseases such as pertussis.

I would be sure this event included representatives of the remaining tribal groups who managed to survive the wholesale disease-driven extermination of their brethren not many decades ago, many due to illnesses now controlled through childhood immunizations. Now that would be an attention-grabbing event that might just propel the discussion in a new direction.

Come a rain storm, put those running shoes on your feet

The dark and extremely gloomy days of Seattle are now settling in. For runners in this region who work normal day shifts, this signals the dark days of running that last up to five to six months, depending on what time of day one runs and how much free time one has. I find it more gloomy than Anchorage, where I lived and ran six years. I never minded running in the dark there, because the snow and clouds created very powerful ambient light that made running at night very pleasurable. But here, it is dark as a coal mine, and damp. People’s vitamin D levels are unhealthily low, and there seems to be widespread manifestations of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

First, let’s talk about why this is such a depressing time of year and can be such a bummer place to be.

The absence of natural sunlight impacts the body’s production of two key hormones that impact the body’s sleep-wake cycles, energy, and mood: melatonin and serotonin. Research indicates that melatonin is generated in greater quantities because of longer periods of darkness. Increasing the production of melatonin leads to sleepiness and lethargy. Serotonin, whose production rises with more exposure to sunlight, falls during these shorter days. Low amounts of serotonin are also associated with depression.

Another byproduct of the darkness is a decrease in the production of vitamin D, naturally created by the body. Though researchers have not fully determined whether low vitamin D contributes to symptoms of depression or whether depression itself contributes to lower vitamin D levels, higher levels of Vitamin D are associated with decreased risks of depression. But alas, anyone living in  Canada, and the northern tier of the Lower 48 here in North America all require vitamin D supplements too to make up for the absence of sunlight come fall. Vitamin D also is critical in many key functions: enhancing the absorption of minerals in the gastrointestinal tract and kidney and thus into the blood, and it may protect against tuberculosis, gum inflammation, MS, and some cancers—at least according to my handy nutrition textbook: Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. (I really love this tome – nicely written, well illustrated.) My response is to take vitamin supplements, but that is not enough.

So here I am in dark and rainy Seattle, deprived of naturally produced vitamin D, at higher risk of SAD. This is exacerbated by Seattle’s culture that seems to promote the absence of smiles and eye contact with strangers. What is a person to do?

Running is a perfect antidote to the blues that accompany the shorter days of autumn.

Easy, go running. While hitting my local running grounds (Greenlake), I heard some walkers recently comment, “This is when the real runners come out.” The observation was referring to the near absence of mobs of fair-weather walkers and runners whose numbers thin by nearly 80% the moment the rains fall and that stygian Seattle glooms settles around mid-October. Paradoxically, running is the perfect antidote to anything resembling SAD or depression or everyday stress. I have done this since I was 15, and I continue running rain or shine, but particularly when it rains.

One of the earliest blockbuster books on the health benefits of running, the Joy of Running, by Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala, came out way back in1976. In it, Kostrubala was among the first of the self-improvement health gurus to promote using an aerobic activity, running, to help treat mental illnesses such as depression. More recently, in September 2011, the UK-based Telegraph published a typical story that is the grist for many running magazines, Running outdoors can improve mental health. The story touted how running outdoors “can both raise your spirits and give you a real buzz.” Of course there are all sorts of web sites that list evidence-based findings that point to the health benefits of running–stress relief, blood circulation to the brain, chemical releases, sharpened cognitive functions, getting outdoors, and more.

Running in the dark does not mean you can’t have fun.

There are also numerous, peer-reviewed scientific papers that highlight the mental health benefits of running, particularly in response to depression. I stumbled on one such paper doing a quick keyword search on the database PubMed, by D.I. Galper, et al., in the January 2006 edition of the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, called “Inverse association between physical inactivity and mental health in men and women.” That study looked at the associations between measures of physical activity and mental health in a large group of more than 5,400 men and women. Galper and his colleagues found that cardio-respiratory fitness and habitual physical activity were associated with lower depressive symptoms and greater emotional well-being.

Of course I and other dark and rainy weather runners did not need this study to confirm what our bodies are telling us every time we get out of our homes and get wet while splashing outdoors. I realize that not everyone has the time to get out after busy days. They may have classes, second jobs, kids, or all of the above. But even in the rain, in the blackness of a fall day, a run or even a walk is sure to improve one’s mental outlook, boost one’s mood, and stimulate the body’s chemistry. Here’s to the days and months ahead of soggy shoes, headlamps, and hopefully a few hellos from water-logged runners. You’re a fine crew.