New digs! Again!

So my wonderful husband set up a self hosted site for me, so we can actually play with code and blah blah blah who cares. Salient point is, henceforth, you can find me over here:



Ok, I’m almost done with HepB, I swear. Just a couple of things that have been bouncing around since I posted the first bit, but haven’t had a chance to cover.

When you google for info on the HepB vaccine, or any vaccine, and include any vaguely negative modifiers (e.g., negative effects, risks, delay, and any disorders under the sun), you end up with gads of hits like mercola.com, or nvic.com, that have a lot of articles that are kind of terrifying. Mercola is outrageously sensational, to the point of being ridiculous, to me at least. NVIC concerns me more, because it has a more even tone – so the misinformation is even more insidious. A couple of the ideas these websites purport in relationship to the HepB vaccine are that it is linked to autism, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and autoimmune disorders.

Autism: the headlines read “Hepatitis B Vaccine triples the risk of autism to infant boys,” in no uncertain terms, and the articles have no discussion of the limitations of the study it’s based on. I read the study, because I’m charitable like that, and here is some additional information. First off, the major findings of the study: the rate of autism in a group of boys who received the HepB vaccine win the first month of life was three times higher than the rate of autism in a group of boys who did not receive the vaccine in the first month of life. Sounds scary, right? Well what isn’t made clear is that the sample sizes are small. The total number of autistic boys considered for that claim was 30. That’s … not very many. The study was a case-control study, which is a particular kind of epidemiological study ideal for identifying associations between disease and exposure; they cannot identifying causality. Additionally, they are ideal for diseases that are very rare. Autism is not particularly rare, at this point, and 30 boys is rather a paltry sample size for such sweeping statements of risk. Additionally, while working on this study, the authors noted that HepB vaccination seemed to exert a protective effective on infant girls, but the sample size is small, so… *shrug*. I draw attention to that only to underscore the absurdity of their headline grabbing claims.

SIDS – I actually can’t find any scientific studies claiming a link between HepB vaccines and SIDS. On mercola.com, this is chalked up to under reporting, and government conspiracy. I can’t argue with crazy, so … I’m sorry if you think there is a government conspiracy. *Head pat* here are some publications talking about how there is no association.

Autoimmune disorders – such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, etc. Now this is actually interesting. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system freaks out and starts attacking the body it’s supposed to be defending, in various ways. Scientists don’t fully understand how the immune system ends up getting confused, but there are a couple of popular theories. One theory is based on the fact that some autoimmune disorders are strongly correlated with exposure to a particular antigen, such as with Guillan-Barré and Campylobacter jejuni. This mechanism makes sense – dysfunction of the immune system in autoimmunity is basically an exaggerated, inappropriate response to an antigen, or misdirected response at some autoantigen (some normal part of the body, like peripheral neurons). Molecular mimicry can be the issue here – the autoantigen looks like an actual antigen, and the immune system gets hoodwinked, and over reacts like a crazed toddler. Another theory holds that some host tissue insult causes the body’s immune cells to incorrectly imprint on autoantigens released due to an injury.

So, it kind of makes sense that you could see an increase in autoimmune issues after vaccination – vaccines can cause inflammation, they are designed to elicit an immune response. In some small segment of the population, that response could be overblown or misdirected. Ok so is this correlation actually happening? Well, no, it does not seem to be. There have been some reports of relapse and aggravation in adults subsequent to HepB vaccines, but controlled epidemiological studies have not been able to establish any formal associations (reviewed in Millet et al., 2009).

In summation: HepB vaccines for everyone! Down with hepatitis!

Sit down!

We have a biped, y’all.

She tried taking a step a couple times this evening, too, but wasn’t quite successful. Won’t be long.

For ages I’ve wanted to write a post about science and epidemiology of vaccines, the illnesses they prevent, and the adverse reactions that can occur because of them. I am gathering information to finally do this, but it is going to take a lot of time. I’ve spent several hours yesterday and today wading through literature just on one vaccine – Hep B. I think I’m going to do this piecemeal, and then hopefully do a wrap up when it’s all said and done; otherwise, between my actual paying job and my family, it’s never going to happen. I could write books on each of them – people have written books.

My goal here is to try to put the risks of vaccination into perspective with the risks of choosing not to vaccinate. My general disclaimer stands – while I am a scientist, I am not a medical doctor. I am also not an epidemiologist, or a public health professional, or a statistician. I do my best to provide source material for the numbers I give and the statements I make, and if you want me to explain something more, just ask. I am focusing my discussion primarily on incidence data from the U.S.; this is partially because it’s easier for me, and partially because it’s more relevant to the rampant fear of vaccines in this country. My personal stance on vaccines is not the point of this, but you can read more about that here, if you want.

HepB – The Hepatitis B Vaccine

HepB is a three dose series, given at birth, 1-2 months, and 6-18 months (source: CDC vaccine schedule). It reduces the transmission of hepatitis B, a virus transmitted primarily by contact with infected blood and bodily fluids.

In my personal discussions with pregnant moms, I heard a lot of skepticism as to why HepB is routinely administered to all infants, when hepatitis B infection occurs primarily in certain high risk segments of the population – people who have unprotected sex, IV drug users, etc. A lot of people said, well, that’s not me and it’s unlikely to be my child, so why should I put my newborn at risk of an adverse reaction to the vaccine?

Ok, so that’s the rub: the HepB vaccine is incredibly safe. The primary adverse reaction is anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction to the vaccine), which occurs in an estimated 1 in 1.1 million doses. Anaphylaxis is serious, but treatable – and because the vaccine is administered in a medical setting, the risks are even lower. No deaths have occurred because of the HepB vaccine, in the U.S. or elsewhere. HepB is part of a routine schedule of vaccinations in 179 countries – a LOT of people have been vaccinated (source)!

So what about deaths and adverse outcomes from hepatitis B? Yeah – a LOT. Before the vaccine was introduced in the mid 1980s, annual new hepatitis B infections were increasing rapidly, peaking at 26,654 new cases in 1986 (source). It is estimated that 700,000 – 1,400,000 people are currently infected with the hepatitis B virus, most of whom do not know they are infected (source). Now that HepB vaccine is administered to most newborns and young children, the rate of new infections has dropped dramatically, to 3350 cases in 2010 (source). The number of people in the U.S. who die each year because of hepatitis B infection (as in, the official cause of death) is hovering around 1700 for the last few years (source).

Most of the deaths from hepatitis B are in older people – that is, not infants dying of acute infections. Hepatitis B can cause a serious acute infection, or a chronic illness. The chronic infection and resulting liver inflammation can lead to cirrhosis and cancer – hepatitis B is one of the leading causes of primary liver cancer. So, when an infant is vaccinated, it reduces the transmission from mother to infant, as well as reducing the rates of subsequent infection later in the child’s life. As more generations of infants and children are vaccinated with HepB, the rates of hepatitis B incidence and related deaths will continue to drop.

To sum up, hepatitis B kills thousands of people every year, while the vaccine kills ZERO. Hmm.

The Hill

When I was in graduate school, I spent a semester as a teaching assistant in an introductory public health course. My duties consisted primarily of proctoring exams and leading discussion groups, but I also attended the class, mostly sitting in the back and working on my dissertation during lectures. One day, I heard the instructor, who was then heavily pregnant with her first child, begin her lecture by asking for a show of hands – who here was planning on vaccinating their children? My ears perked up immediately, as this has always been a pet subject of mine. She went on to say that she wasn’t sure, herself; shed been hearing a lot about their link to autism. Then, hand to god, she showed a YouTube video of Andrew Wakefield, proselytizing about the dangers of vaccinations. To a public health class of college freshman.

* * *

Vaccinations are the hill that I will die on, the line in the concrete, the one thing I refuse to even debate. The subject my familiars know not to bring up, not least because there is a sign that says as much in my kitchen. The thing I cannot listen to differing opinions about, because I don’t think it’s in the realm of opinion. I think it is black and white, right and wrong.

I probably shouldn’t write a word about it, but it’s a central tenant of my existence. There is a very VERY limited set of scenarios in which it is acceptable not to vaccinate. It includes people who have had serious reactions to specific vaccinations, and people who are immunodeficient in specific ways.

The efficacy of vaccinations is based on the principle of herd immunity – that, if a certain proportion of the population is immune to a communicable disease, the remainder of that population is extended some measure of immunity simply because the pathogen cannot find enough vulnerable bodies to infect.

So when someone chooses not to vaccinate their child for personal reasons, that choice can affect entire communities and populations. Herd immunity is compromised. The most vulnerable people – infants and children too young to be vaccinated, or those who are medically unable – suffer the greatest consequences, as these (preventable!) illnesses are much more serious, even deadly, for them. So – when someone chooses not to vaccinate, not only are they relying on herd immunity to cover their child’s ass, they are endangering everyone else’s kids too.

I cannot believe that this is still a topic of discussion. The autism bullshit has been so thoroughly debunked, even the media slowly (so goddamn slowly) seems to have cottoned on. And yet, there is a pertussis EPIDEMIC in my state. People (BABIES) have died. Totally preventable. Makes me sick.

And one of reasons it makes me so viscerally upset is that I know that, at least to some degree, the blame lies with the scientific community. Not just the quacks (Wakefield et al.), but the rest of us too. For failing to communicate effectively, failing to make bold statements. Scientists hate to make definitive statements – it’s not scientifically accurate to claim something is wholly true or false. Rather, we say that “evidence suggests” or “no significant elevation was observed” or something that sounds similarly evasive or inconclusive to the layman’s ear.

That basic misunderstanding between scientists and laypeople, mixed with a sensationalist media and a litigious society is a recipe for disaster. Or a pertussis epidemic, I guess.

Here are some infographics that help communicate some of the issues surrounding vaccinations:

And here is a fantastic book recommendation:
Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, by Paul Offit (amazon).
Offit has another book out that I’m psyched to read, but I gotta finish Broken Harbour first. You know how it is.

Earlier today, Hillary posted a quiz on twitter about privilege and living in bubbles (I scored a 33), and it sparked a lot of interesting discussion about personal backgrounds.  I had what was, in my opinion, a privileged (and incredibly boring) up bringing, and I am always fascinated to hear about folks who had childhoods and family histories different from mine.  So, even though I think it was boring, I’m writing about my childhood in the hopes that other people might do it too.

I grew up in suburban Atlanta, in a solidly upper middle class area. My dad worked as a physicist in industry (optical fiber and the internet and other physicsy things), and my mom stayed home with me and my brother.  We went to public school, and though Georgia isn’t exactly an educational mecca, the school district we were in was one of the best public school districts in the country.  There was very little racial diversity – when I attended, my high school was something like 96% white, 3% asian, 1% everyone else.  We had what I consider to be a white picket fences sort of upbringing – mom at home, dad at work, we went to school and participated in various extracurriculars (sports, clubs, etc.).  I briefly played soccer and tennis, did swim team every summer, and ran cross country in high school. My brother did all the same sports, but for longer and at a higher level (I… preferred books).  I was never aware of money being an issue – if Johnny or I wanted to try some activity or pursuit, we could; if we wanted something (clothes, electronics) and could make a reasonable case for it, we’d usually get it for Christmas.  We were NOT allowed to quit our pursuits mid-season, which was different from a lot of our friends.  We took family vacations every year – sometimes to visit relatives, and starting when I was 10 or so, we’d go skiing every year.  Sometimes we got to take friends with us (because my brother and I would fight with each other, so I think it was more pleasant for my parents if we brought friends).
While I don’t think my parents ever allowed us to feel any economic hardships, they did work hard to instill us with good money management skills and work ethics.  My brother and I both had jobs in high school – I worked at an animal hospital, and my brother worked at Target.  In neither case did my parents tell us we had to work, but they encouraged us to do so as a means of making personal spending money, as well as to begin gaining work experience.  We both got allowances growing up (I think $10/week in high school?), but we weren’t spoiled as compared to our peers. Which means: our parents bought each of us cars, but they were older/used, and we had to pay for our own gas.  We had to do chores around the house, but I am pretty sure I was a total asshole about it.  My parents put a lot of effort towards us developing good financial habits – we had credit cards and savings accounts in our early teens, and started doing our own taxes as soon as we had jobs, even though we were both still dependents.  Which, now that I think about it, means our parents stopped claiming us as such (and thus didn’t get the tax credits), for that learning experience.
My family has always put a pretty high premium on education, and I think it was taken for granted that my brother and I would go to college.  Both of us went to an in-state school, which was pretty affordable (particularly with Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, which paid for tuition in full), and our parents paid for our room and board while we were at school.  They wouldn’t have been able to if we had chosen out of state schools, I think, but I’m not totally sure.  They also bribed us to be high achievers, by giving us any money we earned towards our tuition in scholarships (besides the HOPE one).  I worked all through college, while my brother didn’t – I worked at a climbing wall and in the gym, as well as in various teaching and research assistantships.  All the jobs were for spending money, though I ended up putting most of it into savings as well.
Writing all of that out, the thing that really jumps out at me most is that, while we both had to work hard and take personal responsibility for our choices, we had choices.  A LOT of choices.  And, probably more importantly, a very solid safety net.
My parents met while working at a summer camp in New England, and are both from New Jersey.  My mom worked for AT&T Bell Labs while my dad went to graduate school, and she got a degree in Occupational Psychology while she was working ( I think there was a free tuition situation through her job?).  My father got a job in Atlanta after he finished school in NJ, and they headed down here. My mom worked until she had my brother, and decided at the end of her six week maternity leave that she couldn’t send him to day care.  Once my brother and I were in school, she did a lot of volunteer work with our schools and sports teams, etc., and worked part time jobs on and off.
My maternal grandfather owned his own business (real estate maybe?), and my maternal grandmother stayed home with the kids.  They were solidly middle class, maybe upper middle.  I have no idea what my paternal grandparents did, but I think I remember my dad telling me they were middle class as well, albeit perhaps not the upper end.  My dad and one of his sisters are both physicists (my aunt works at NASA and is cool as hell), and his other sister is an estates lawyer (I think) in Manhattan, which as far as I know means she is really good at her job.  That whole branch of the family (including me and most of my cousins) is pretty graduate/professional school happy.
I am kind of excited to talk to my mom and fill in family details I have forgotten.  I’m having one of those moments of clarity where I realize how little I know about my parents as individuals, as opposed to just my parents.
I’m also feeling all hyperaware of privilege and I think I’m going to go quietly freak out about how to raise my kid to not be an entitled snobby pants.  Ack.  I know when I got to college, I was a total jackass and thought I knew everything and that I was smarter than everyone. I remember saying OUT LOUD that I thought people with southern accents were dumb.  Yeah, that was special.  Then I spent my undergraduate years in the Poultry Science department and that knocked a lot of the stupid right out of me.  THANK GOODNESS.
OK – now I feel boring and also kind of like an asshole.  Tell me about you!  You are more interesting than me!  Also, maybe my mom will turn up and set the record straight if I botched anything.  Hi, mom!

9 months old

This bear is acting awfully kid-like lately. Standing, cruising (still clumsy, thank god), going up the stairs. Two more teeth. Using WORDS. Fine, just ‘uh oh’ but STILL. Who said she could learn to talk?

I feel like I can very easily picture the kid she is going to turn into. And even though I know she is still a baby, she seems so so much older than my concept of one.

She’s so much FUN, though. She crawls all over us, squealing and giggling and making weird little Eliza noises. I love it when she climbs over us, or anything big, and gets sort of beached on top. She kicks her chubby little legs until she gets the momentum to make it over, and then face plants happily on the other side. She’s getting more coordinated all the time, so I know she won’t have to do that for much longer… which makes me sad. I remember before Eliza was born, basically up until the day she arrived, I would say OUT LOUD how silly it was when people exclaimed over how fast it all goes, how I would NEVER say such trite things – life is so long! It can’t go that fast!

IT DOES, my god. I’ve been hyper aware since moment one, of all the firsts and the potential lasts. The last time she slept snuggled up on my chest in a little newborn ball. The last time she slept swaddled, and the way she wriggled in the morning when we unwrapped her. The way she bounces up and down into crawling when she’s excited, and how when she’s REALLY excited, she gets going too fast and face plants. How she buries her face in her favorite toys (broccoli, ostrich) when she’s playing, and in her blanket when she’s tired.

Anyway, sappy memories aside, this month has been great. Started with a visit from Grandma Sherry, included a frisbee tournament in Seattle and a visit from college friends. In between the minor adventures, a lot of rolling around on the floor, and giggling.