The original idea of this blog

I’d like to take a moment and welcome any and all new readers of this blog. I’m happy you’re here, and I’m looking forward to spirited discussions on issues of science and public health. At this time, I’d like to remind everyone to read the About section and the Commenting Policy as well. I know that some of the topics discussed are very serious and capable of making a person very passionate and even angry. Nevertheless, let’s try to keep it civil, that we may communicate better.

That said, I’d also like to point out to you the original idea of this blog. I originally started writing a short story titled “The Poxes.” The story is all drafted on paper and pretty much concluded in my head. I have just been slow in committing it to the web because I want something that is meaningful and good, though I still think it’s not as polished as it could be. So, if you want to read that story so far, I invite you to click on The Poxes Story page atop this blog.

Other than that, I’d like to wish a Happy Easter, Passover, and/or Sunday to everyone.

Vaccine apologetics?

I don’t usually associate apologetics with scientific concepts. I associate them with religious things. Often, you have people on the radio or on television, defending their faith. I don’t blame them nor find any fault with this. For things that are untestable, apologetics is a good way to defend beliefs. For science, we have evidence. You either believe the evidence or you don’t. If you don’t believe in something that is tangible, testable, and objective, then you’re a denialist.

Denialists are scarier to me than apologists because these are people who are presented with actual, verifiable evidence of scientific claims, and they still find it in themselves to deny the evidence and continue to live in their own world. One such denialist showed up on “The Poxes” and commented on the “Measles” chapter. Here is what the denialist wrote:

Click to enlarge, of course.
The denialist was responding to this passage in that chapter:

“It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that a highly effective vaccine was developed and launched all over the world. The number of cases dropped precipitously to almost nothing in many parts of the world. While deaths had been avoided through better medical care once someone was infected, outbreaks still occurred in great numbers right up until the time when the vaccination level reached 90%, then outbreaks were halted because of herd immunity.”

That part of that chapter was not fiction. It is true that the advent of the measles vaccine in the 1960’s brought about the decline of measles cases and measles outbreaks in the United States. There were no huge leaps in food preparation, food hygiene, sewer systems, or hand washing in the 1960’s. Those things were well in place before the 1960’s, and they did squat to stop the spread of measles. Here’s the number of cases per year of measles:

Here is a graph with more information:

Can you see when measles cases dropped precipitously? When did we start having sewers or washing our hands in the United States? Sometime around the 1960’s? Nope.

The reason why improvements in hygiene and food preparation don’t do anything against infections like measles, rubella (German measles), or chickenpox, is that these infections are transmitted through droplets suspended in the air. You can scrub down a room until you can eat off the floor and still have measles suspended in the air if a person infectious with measles had been there a few hours earlier. You can hermetically seal all food, water, and waste, and these viruses would still linger in the air.

The best infection prevention against measles is to cycle the air in a room through a filter or let the room stand unoccupied for several hours and then scrub it down once the droplets settle onto surfaces. The thing is, you wouldn’t know that these droplets were there because they’re microscopic. Furthermore, someone with measles is infectious a few days before they get any symptoms. So you could very well have a healthy person walk into a room and contaminate the hell out of it.

I’m willing to give the denialist the benefit of the doubt and say that they have not “done their research” on measles, hence the misunderstanding. But this is another comment this person left for me on a blog post about the flu vaccine:

Click to enlarge, won’t you?

This person is not dumb. They’ve done “research”. They just refuse to see the evidence. (Of course, that Cochrane Collaboration did not find anything like that. The denialist is reading into it what the denialist wants to see.)

So, no, I’m not apologizing for vaccines. I don’t need to. The evidence is there. It is clear. It is testable. It is objective. Let whoever has ears (and eyes and intelligence) to understand the evidence listen and learn and help us move forward as a species.

When the chips are down

There are two lines of reasoning when it comes to major disasters. One states that, when the chips are down, humans will revert to behaving like animals and survival of the fittest will morph into survival of the strongest. (Strongest are not always the fittest. Not when it comes to humans.) Basically, we get the world where Mad Max exists and law and order have disappeared and get replaced with brute force and odd alliances.

The other line of reasoning is one where we all stick together to try to get over the disaster and make the best of it. The line of command in civil and military authority is preserved, and we all pull together to help each other get by. There is no looting, no price gouging, no roving gangs trying to assert their authority. In short, we get the Star Trek scenario where something like WW3 makes us ban war and come to our collective senses.

But let’s not talk about fiction. Let’s talk about real situations. On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks brought down two enormous office buildings in New York City, collapsed part of the Pentagon just outside Washington, DC, and brought down a plane in Pennsylvania. The Federal Aviation Administration ordered an immediate grounding of all flights over the United States and parts of Canada and Mexico. Communities with airports had to suddenly deal with a mass of passengers that landed and another mass that couldn’t leave. Yet we didn’t hear of any kinds of riots at airports. We all kind of knew that there was something going on that was more important than us getting somewhere on a schedule.

In New York City, all available first responders headed to the site of the World Trace Center towers to try and help survivors of the collapses. This included policemen and, eventually, national guardsmen. And yet crime in the city actually declined despite the fact that most of the police departments were involved in the rescue efforts. Well, either it truly declined or the victims of the crimes didn’t deem it necessary (or just plain couldn’t) report the crimes in light of what was going on. All in all, during the attacks of September 11, we all stuck together.

Yet the attacks were not a disaster in that basic infrastructure was kept intact. The chain of command in civil and military authority was not broken. Hospitals were open for business, electricity flowed freely, and the confusion and commotion was limited to only those places where planes went down. For an example where everything collapsed, let’s look at Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Now, that was a mess. Even with days of advance notice, very few people of New Orleans heeded the advice to evacuate. Few, relatively speaking. There were still enough people who tried to leave and ended up jamming the highways and roads leading out of the city. In my opinion, the leadership of the city made a big mistake in having people cram into the football stadium as well. You just can’t put that many people in an enclosed space like that without supplies and without authorities to manage the situation. But that’s neither here or there.

We all saw what happened. The water levels rose and inundated neighborhoods. Those who stayed had a collapse of infrastructure seen only before in places outside of the United States. There was looting. There were people in mortal danger not only from the storm but from each other. It was utter chaos. The kicker was that the government at all three levels failed to be prepared and respond appropriately, even with days of warning of the impending disaster.

So what’s going to happen next time the chips are down? Because there will be a next time.

I write this because this is where “The Poxes” is heading. There is an impending disaster coming to that universe because of the events in the first two chapters. Our hero will find himself in a losing fight against not only the interests of the anti-vaccine people who are pushing to do away with all vaccines, but there are other forces at play in his town. And so, I intend to analyze what happens when the chips are down. Who will step up to the fight?

Erase and Rewind, ‘Cause I’ve Been Changing My Mind

I’ve decided to reboot “The Poxes”. That’s all. Move along…

Oh, you want more?

Okay, so the story that I originally had in mind, like any good story in my head, began to mutate and kind of got away from me. I’ve decided to re-boot the story and give the antagonist (we all know who that is) a little bit of a more subtle role. No use wasting all his talents on chasing after the young epidemiologist when there are other things that can keep the young epidemiologist out of the way for the antagonist’s ultimate plan.

Of course, I’ll have to stick to the premise that the event on “Vaccination Day” led to the collapse of the US immunization program, a wet dream of sorts of many an anti-vaxer, like the guy who said this:

“With less than a half-dozen full-time activists, annual budgets of six figures or less, and umpteen thousand courageous, undaunted, and selfless volunteer parents, our community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire, is in the early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.”

Ah, the gift that keeps on giving. You thought the rogue epidemiologist was going to be the main antagonist? Not if real life has the kinds of villains that the above-quoted person can be.

So look for the reboot some time later this Spring.

Why October 23?

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have seen that the countdown clock to “The Poxes” is almost there. It will reach zero time on Sunday, October 23, at one minute past midnight that morning. Why did I pick that date?

I picked that date because it is “10.23” a date in which people in different parts of the world point out the scientific inaccuracies of the homeopathic remedies sold as cures to all sorts of things. Why 10 23? Because Avogadro’s number is a constant which establishes that there can only be 6.022 times 10 raised to the 23rd power (6022 followed by 20 zeroes) atoms or molecules of something in a mole of that something. It’s a pretty big number, but you can see how diluting something by 100 two hundred times can wipe out even that many molecules. An example? Keep reading.

From the periodic table of elements we see that glucose (made up of six carbons, twelve hydrogens, and six oxygens) has a molecular weight of about 180 grams per mole. That is, 6.022×10^23 molecules of glucose weigh 180 grams. So let’s take those 180 grams and put them in a liter of water (1000 milliliters). Now, like any good homeopath, let’s take that initial solution and make a “200C” homeopathic remedy.

The “C” in “200C” stands for a dilution of 1 to 100. So “200C” means that the solution is diluted 1 to 100 two-hundred times. So we start with a 180g per liter solution. Dilute that by 100 the first (of 200) time, and we have a 1.8g per liter solution. Dilute it the second (of 200) time and we have 0.018g per liter. The third time? 0.0018g per liter. But let’s just stop and look at what’s happening at the mole of glucose.

The mole of glucose we started with in one liter was 6.022×10^23 molecules. There were that many molecules of glucose, remember? After the first dilution, there were 6.022×10^21 molecules. Second dilution? 6.022×10^19. After the third, there were 6.022×10^17. Can you see where this is going?

As we continue to dilute our homeopathic remedy, we are adding two zeroes immediately to the right of the decimal point in terms of grams per liter. In terms of moles, we are subtracting two powers of ten from the exponent (ten times ten is one-hundred, get it?). In both cases, if we go through to the 200th dilution of 1 to 100 parts, we’re going to A) have a whole bunch of zeroes to the right of the decimal point (400 zeroes, in fact), and B) run out of exponents of the moles.

It’s B that really brings the message home. Why? Because 0.0…198 zeroes here…018 grams per liter equals less than one molecule per liter left. What’s less than one molecule? No molecules. (You can’t split a glucose molecule and still call it “glucose”.) That’s right. If you dilute a mole of glucose (180 grams) – or anything else in the known universe – to a “200C” solution for homeopathic treatment, you end up with no chance of even one single molecule left in the final dilution.

No chance… Well, okay, there’s a chance, but it’s small. I’m talking really, really small. How small? Let’s say that we have the ability to fill the universe with lottery balls. You can pick one ball. What is the chance that the winning ball will be yours if we have the entire universe to pick from? Yeah, it’s that small.

And what does one goddamn molecule of anything do, anyway?

So how does homeopathy “work”? It doesn’t. But the charlatans that push it will still tell you fantastic stories of how water “remembers” what’s been in it. So, even with no molecules left, the water in the 200C remedy will remember that it once had whatever you dissolved into it. Yes, you guessed it, there is no evidence of this claim. (In fact, if it were true, then water would remember all sorts of nasty things it’s been in contact with… Like feces.)

What if you add more than one mole to the initial solution? Is there an amount of moles you can add to still have at least one molecule left at the end? Yes, there is. But that number is so large (6.022×10^23 multiplied by 180 grams, in our example), that you’re diluting the water in the solution, not the “active ingredient”.

In “The Poxes”, you will meet two very skeptical characters. One is skeptical by nature, because he is always questioning the universe around him, a true scientist. The other is skeptical out of spite. A homeopath did something very, very bad to him earlier in his life. So the second character has an axe to pick with questionable medical practices. You’ll get to meet them on 10-23. I hope you join me.