SB 277 protects kids + gets us useful public health data

While I was busy reading everything written about the King v Burwell decision and celebrating a massive human rights win, California governor Jerry Brown eliminated “personal belief” vaccine exemptions. California now joins Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states that require vaccines for all children unless contraindicated due to medical necessity.

The most important result of the passage of SB 277 is that it says, boldly and definitively, that vaccines are not only safe and necessary for protecting an individual child, but that the safety of the population will not be threatened by pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.

Even if the law doesn’t significantly change vaccination rates, its passage elevates the status of vaccines. It says to California parents you can believe whatever outrageous ideas you want, but your anti-science views cannot endanger other people, especially other children.

SB 277 implementation also gives officials an opportunity to research the ways that vaccine legislation impacts public health. Wired puts it nicely:

Whether or not the law has a significant effect on the health of California’s kids, this is a prime opportunity to carefully study the effects of legislation like this on both vaccination and disease rates. Health officials would love to know for sure that SB277 will have a meaningful impact on public health. But they can’t. It’s notoriously hard to draw connections between statewide vaccine laws and disease numbers.

This is awesome! Ending the personal exemption means that all kids enrolled in public school must receive all vaccinations. And we’ll be able to get good data on potential connections between legislation, vaccination rates, and disease outbreaks. End of story. Right?

Not necessarily.

There seems to be a loophole that will allow doctors who have inexplicably been converted over the anti-vaccine cause and who believe that a vaccine may harm a child to give medical exemptions. 

Presumably, this exists because some kids are just flat out allergic to some vaccines (on a personal note, I’m allergic to the pertussis vaccine so I depend on herd immunity, myself).  I haven’t found much analysis of this caveat aside from general statements about not giving a vaccine to kids who are allergic to it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see families seeking exemptions through a doctor who believes vaccines are harmful for all children and who are then being kept from enrolling their children in public schools.

I’m eager to see how this unfolds, both among pro- and anti-vaxxers and as a new way of understanding how policy decisions impact public health. California, thank you for giving this a shot for the rest of us, and thank you for taking a stand against the nonsense bubbling up across the country.

Study shows no link between HPV vaccine and increased sexual activity

Big news on the sexual health front: a new longitudinal study was published yesterday in JAMA showing that young women who have received the HPV vaccine are no more likely to contract other STIs than unvaccinated women. While it is never a good idea to make generalizations about anything based on one study, this particular one seems well-designed and will hopefully lead to further study on this question. 'The Public Vaccinator' by Lance Calkin. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

HPV causes cervical, vaginal, and anal cancer and has been connected to various head and neck carcinomas. The vaccine protects against four strains of the virus most often responsible for those cancers. To be clear: the HPV vaccine is a vaccine against cancer. Despite the potential benefits, many parents (and non-parents) fear that by giving their child the HPV vaccine, their child will feel free to engage in risky sexual behavior.

Because of this fear, HPV vaccine uptake has been abysmal in the United States. Only about half of young women and one-third of young men have received the first dose of the HPV, and even fewer have completed the three-dose series.

Looking at a sample group of women over 208,000 women aged 12-18, researchers found that young women recieved the HPV vaccine were no more likely to seek treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, HIV/AIDS, or syphilis than were unvaccinated women. That’s right, there was no evidence that getting the HPV vaccine increased the likelihood of being diagnosed with an STI.

Using pharmacy claims, researchers also determined that vaccinated women were more likely to use oral contraceptives. 17.9% of vaccinated women across age ranges received a prescription for hormonal birth control while 9.2% of unvaccinated women did. This could be due to a few factors: young women who intended to engage in any sexual activity were more likely to request the vaccine as well as contraceptives; the HPV vaccine was suggested by doctor during appointments for acquiring contraceptives; or parent perception of daughters’ likehood of being sexually active influenced their decision to vaccinate or seek contraceptives for their child.

There are, of course, some limitations to this study. The researchers were only able to access records, so by design they missed undiagnosed STIs, may have included STI screenings rather than diagnoses, and omits the use of non-prescription contraceptives like condoms. Researchers were also unable to use records from anonymous clinics. Researchers also could not acquire information about SES and motivations for receiving the vaccine. This study also does not look at young men in the same age range, which would give a more complete picture of how HPV vaccine impacts adolescent sexual activity.

The psychology of vaccine risk perception is fascinating. Beyond the concerns of “naturalness,” parents who are less inclined to vaccinate may feel more responsible for potential injury to their child if the injury is connected to a vaccine rather than to a disease that could have been prevented by that vaccine. A parent whose child has a seizure after the HPV vaccine may feel more responsible for that event than if the child contracts HPV. I wonder how the parents would feel if, after a decade, their child is diagnosed with an HPV-related cancer.

To an extent, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I do possess empathy and can imagine how frightening parenting must be. The world seems full of danger, and parents want to do everything in their power to keep their children safe. Sometimes not acting--not vaccinating--seems safer than risking the side effects of the vaccination or of the disease itself.

Fearing risky adolescent sexual activity also makes some sense to me. Most parents don’t want to see their child become a parent during their sophomore year of high school. Most parents don’t want their child to live with HIV or herpes.

But nearly everyone becomes sexually active at some point in their lives, and about 70% of people have their first sexual experience before age 19.  Half of sexually active men and women will have HPV. That means that means that when parents decide not to vaccinate their children, they allow their children to have a one-in-two chance of contracting HPV. And while most cases of HPV clear up on their own with no adverse effects, there are more than 33,000 cases of HPV-related cancer diagnosed each year in the United States.

No study can stand alone. We should not take the results of this study and make bold proclamations about young women’s behavior and sexual activity. I do believe, however, that this robust study provides some much-needed evidence that reducing young women’s risk of infection does not turn them into crazed sex machines making risky choices. I look forward to subsequent studies that can provide more evidence for parents to use to make informed choices.

Note: I know that women over age 18 don’t need parental permission in order to get the vaccine and may be more inclined to seek it out. But this study looked only at women under age 18, so I stuck to that age group as well.

Friday Five: National Immunization Awareness Month

national immun awareness monthThis week’s Friday Five focuses on five important or interesting facts about vaccines in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month. Most of the sections are adapted just slightly from other sources. You can find the original source material by clicking the link next to each subheading.  

How do vaccines work? (History of Vaccines)

Vaccines work to prime your immune system against future “attacks” by a particular disease. When a pathogen enters your body, your immune system generates antibodies to try to fight it off…Vaccines work because of this function of the immune system. They’re made from a killed, weakened, or partial version of a pathogen. When you get a vaccine, whatever version of the pathogen it contains isn’t strong or plentiful enough to make you sick, but it’s enough for your immune system to generate antibodies against it. As a result, you gain future immunity against the disease without having gotten sick: if you’re exposed to the pathogen again, your immune system will recognize it and be able to fight it off.

 

What is herd immunity? (Vaccines Today)

Herd immunity is a form of immunity that occurs when the vaccination of a significant portion of a population (or herd) provides a measure of protection for individuals who have not developed immunity. It arises when a high percentage of the population is protected through vaccination against a virus or bacteria, making it difficult for a disease to spread because there are so few susceptible people left to infect…These include children who are too young to be vaccinated, people with immune system problems, and those who are too ill to receive vaccines (such as some cancer patients)…The proportion of the population which must be immunized in order to achieve herd immunity varies for each disease but the underlying idea is simple: once enough people are protected, they help to protect vulnerable members of their communities by reducing the spread of the disease. However, when immunization rates fall, herd immunity can break down leading to an increase in the number of new cases.

 

Do children get too many shots? (from CHOP Vaccine Education Center)

Newborns commonly manage many challenges to their immune systems at the same time. Because some children could receive as many as 25 shots by the time they are 2 years old and as many as five shots in a single visit to the doctor, many parents wonder whether it is safe to give children so many vaccines…From the moment of birth, thousands of different bacteria start to live on the surface of the skin and intestines. By quickly making immune responses to these bacteria, babies keep them from invading the bloodstream and causing serious diseases. In fact, babies are capable of responding to millions of different viruses and bacteria because they have billions of immunologic cells circulating in the bodies. Therefore, vaccines given in the first two years of life are a raindrop in the ocean of what an infant’s immune system successfully encounters and manages every day.

 

What do vaccine preventable illnesses look like? (Immunization Action Coalition)

Most people in the US have never seen a case of polio or diphtheria. This photo gallery may help remind us why immunizing against these diseases is so important.

 

How can we lessen the pain of getting shots? (CHOP Vaccine Education Center)

(This is important for scaredy-cats like me.)

For most children, getting vaccines simply means the pain of getting a shot. Although pain is to some extent unavoidable, there are a few things worth trying in older children.

Blowing away the pain

One technique is called "blowing away the pain." Just before the shot, take out a feather, tell the child to take a deep breath, closing his eyes if he wants, and then to blow out...blow, and blow on the feather until you or the nurse tells them to stop. The distraction of blowing on the feather has been shown in one study to lessen the amount of pain perceived by the child.

Cold versus pain

Another idea is to swab a small amount of alcohol on the forearm of the opposite arm that will receive the vaccine. The child then blows on the alcohol before and during the shot. Our bodies don't feel cold and pain in the same place at the same time. Rather, when confronted with the choice of cold or pain, the body picks cold. So the feeling of pain from the shot will be reduced.

EMLA cream

For older children with severe phobias to needles, you might consider the use of an EMLA patch applied to the skin. The limitation of this technique is that the patch (which helps to numb the area) must be applied at least one hour before the injection. Also, EMLA cream works to decrease pain caused by injections under the skin (called subcutaneous injections), but doesn't lessen the pain of vaccines given in the muscles.

Friday Five: withdrawal, Amanda Bynes, gluten-free labels, vaccine rates, urgentrx

Each Friday, I use five sentences to summarize and comment on five important, interesting, or just plain amusing health stories from the week. Pulling out is surprisingly popular

A study that will be published in the September issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that 31% of women aged 15-24 used withdrawal as the primary form of contraceptive at least once. The study also found that 21% of those women became pregnant, compared to 13% of women who used other methods. I was pretty outraged to learn that so many young women rely on their partners to pull out, so I consulted the Kinsey Institute site Kinsey Confidential to compare different forms of contraceptives:

Method Typical Effectiveness Theoretical Effectiveness
Withdrawal 81% 94%
Male condoms 85% 98%
Oral contraceptives 92% 99.9%
Intrauterine Device (IUD) 99% 99%
Implant 99.01% 99.01%

Whelp, turns out the much-touted condoms don’t fare much better in preventing pregnancy than withdrawal, but IUDs and implants are far better. Advocating for more extensive use of IUDs and implants would help more women learn about their effectiveness and safety, and could play a major role in reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies. (FYI: condoms protect against some STIs, so keep using them, okay?)

Now we know what’s ailing Amanda Bynes

After publicly unraveling, actress Amanda Bynes has been placed on psychiatric hold and reportedly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a debilitating yet treatable disease that can lead to delusions, hallucinations (including hearing voices and smelling odors that don’t exist), and cognitive issues, among other symptoms. I sincerely hope that her family and doctors help her find the right treatment so she can find relief from her suffering. This story is playing out all over the gossip mills, and we can learn from this: erratic behavior requires intervention. In an open letter, her former co-star Nick Cannon also taught us an important lesson about how provide compassion:

So I say to my sister Amanda Bynes you’re not alone. I’m here for you. I understand. I care and I appreciate you, because that’s what family does and that’s what family is for. I also extend this to anyone else in my life, past or present that may find themselves in hard times. I’m here! Call me! Because I truly believe, the hand you’re helping up today may be the one you’re reaching for tomorrow.

Side note: take a look at this fantastic Atlantic article with Dr. Christine Montross titled “How well do we really understand mental illness?” for more insight into the hows and whys of treating severe mental illness.

Gluten-free labels, now with accuracy!

People with celiac disease, those with gluten sensitivity/intolerance, and dieters can all rejoice because this week, the FDA standardized the label “gluten-free.” The limit is 20 ppm, the lowest amount of gluten detectable in a food product. Foods such as fresh fruit and eggs can carry the label “gluten free” because they naturally contain no gluten. Regulations like this help consumers make informed choices. Considering more than two million Americans cannot digest gluten, having consistent, effective labels is the right thing to do for their health.

State-by-state vaccine rates tell us about exemptions

Each year, the CDC analyzes vaccine rates among the 50 states, Washington DC, five cities, and eight other US jurisdictions that receive federal funding for immunizations. This year, Mississippi topped the list, with 99.9% of kindergarteners receiving full doses of MMR, DTaP, and varicella (chicken pox). Overall, median exemption rate for the country was 1.8%; Oregon had the highest, with 6.5% of kindergarteners not meeting the vaccine standards. Interestingly, Mississippi does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions for immunizations. Removing religious and philosophical exemptions altogether wouldn’t be appropriate, but perhaps the success Mississippi has with getting children vaccinated will spark a conversation about strengthening the requirements for getting an exemption.

UrgentRx: alleviating upset stomachs, potentially saving lives

Forbes just published its list of what it deems the 25 most innovative consumer and retail brands of the year. An over-the-counter medication company, UrgentRx, made the cut. The company produces powders of common treatments for headaches, allergies, and digestive issues, along with plain aspirin intended for use during a heart attack. UrgentRx powders can be taken without water, meaning that you can give yourself a hit of heartburn medicines whenever you need it. The implication for potentially life-saving doses of aspirin are immense: a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, as reported by Harvard Medical School, showed that chewed aspirin worked faster against heart attacks than swallowing it whole or taking a liquid version. For a person with heart disease, carrying around a powdered dose eliminates the need to chew and provides the benefits of aspirin as quickly as possible.