Sunday, June 5, 2016

Don't listen to Mike Adams, "the health ranger," when it comes to Zika

I had a interesting day yesterday. I was tagged in a post in a facebook group where someone had questions about a new article talking about Zika. It turns out the "health ranger" has decided to tell us all what a hoax the Zika outbreak is. Since I'm tired of his antics and countering his crazy claims piecemeal, I've written this debunk of his claims (he's recycled several of these). If you want to see the original article, here it is with do not link FB:

The numbered points in bold are the claims that the "health ranger" makes. As per his usual mode of operation, sources are far and few between with self cites (that are also not sourced) as the primary source used. To be up front, since I've already debunked one of these claims before, I do link to my previous article; however, it is properly sourced. 
With that here is a debunk of "10 shocking reasons why Zika virus fear is another fraudulent medical hoax and vaccine industry funding scam"

#1) The microcephaly cases (shrunken heads) in Brazil were caused by larvicide chemicals, not by zika

This first claim is based off a "report" from a group in Argentina that is opposed to all use of pesticides. There is no data to back it up, it's just an unsupported idea. I've previously covered this conspiracy theory as have others including many experts. The fact that this untested hypothesis is being pushed even after it has been conclusively shown that Zika is capable of not only crossing the placental barrier, but can cause birth defects shows a complete lack of research on the topic at best and deliberate misinformation at worst. This claim is completely false.

#2) Even according to the CDC, which is aggressively pushing false Zika fear, nearly all Zika infections are harmless, symptomless and require no hospitalization whatsoever

This is a bit more tricky. The data that forms the statistic of only 1 in 5 infected people showing symptoms from Zika is based the African strain of the virus and is based on lower outbreak numbers from before 2007 (the start of the current outbreak beginning with Yap Island). The Asian strain may be different as it is capable of causing more severe birth defects when this is not the case for the African strain. There are some issues with defining this number. For one, Zika is found in areas with Dengue and it causes similar symptoms to Dengue. Because of this many doctors may be misidentifying viral infections with a rash and fever as Dengue rather than Zika. Further complicating matters, Zika and Dengue are so closely related that the ELISA test for Dengue also reacts to the Zika virus. There is a new ELISA for Zika, but it still needs to be confirmed if positive. Right now the only way to confirm Zika infection is by RT-PCR (or qRT-PCR); however, new diagnostics tests are being developed. As if this wasn't complex enough, it now looks like prior Dengue virus infection can make subsequent Zika virus infection more severe. Based on all of this, researchers have already began the epidemiological studies to try and determine the actual rate of symptoms caused by the Asian strain of the Zika virus. 

Again using out of date information when there is more current information available, especially since most journals have agreed to make Zika research open access, is lazy at best and intentionally deceptive at worst.

#3) The CDC fabricated the science linking Zika to microcephaly

This whole idea is based purely on the CDC "whistleblower" fiasco that really didn't happen like Andy W. and Brian H. said it did. This lie has been debunked so many times, that it's not worth doing yet again. The repeated use of this claim is cannot be seen as anything but intentional deception.

#4) Zika virus fear was just used by Congress to remove bans on other toxic pesticide chemicals that cause cancer and Alzheimer's disease

No evidence was given to support this claim other than another conspiracy theory from natural "news." Without anything actual to address, there is no way to disprove a negative. It's like saying that the president, or the clerk at the local gas station for that matter, is a lizard person and expecting someone to try and show otherwise. This is an intentionally deceptive tactic.

#5) Zika virus hype was also invoked by Obama to funnel another $1.8 billion to the vaccine industry, claiming anyone who opposed the funding "opposed pregnant women"

The research on Zika has progressed at a pace that is beyond amazing. Nine months ago there were just a handful of papers on Zika. Now we have dozens of top quality studies that have been published. There has not been a single virus that we have learned as much about in such a short time period. Not HIV, not Ebola, not SARS. Research is not free or cheap. The techniques that are being used to study Zika are cutting edge and are not something that can be done without funding sources. Developing a vaccine will only make up part of this proposed budget. Vector control, education and research are also big parts of the President's proposed Zika budget. And although the "opposed to pregnant women" argument is a tad heavy handed, it is accurate. It's very easy to take the "moral high ground" based on fear and deception when you are not at risk. Before the vaccine has been developed and safety testing done, the "health ranger" has declared that this vaccine is dangerous and the risks of Zika causing birth defects are less than the risks of the vaccine. This is not science, it is ideology.

#6) Zika virus fear has been used as a weapon of control to terrorize the people of the Americas by violating their private property

This one puzzles me. It's almost like it's a bad thing that governments in South America are going into homes to kill Aedes aegypti (which likes to hide in houses to bite people) and clean up the trash, like tires and old containers, that A. aegypti is breeding in. I also might be mistaken, but I don't remember excess trash and old tires being one of the unalienable rights held dear by democracy. This can't be called anything other than intentionally inflammatory.

#7) Zika is just the latest viral hoax floated by governments... remember the great Bird Flu hoax that sold billions in vaccines?

Again no evidence is offered for this claim other than another NN article that cites other NN articles. In the absence of evidence, it is equally likely that the bird flu vaccines worked and prevented a major outbreak. But a vaccine isn't the first line of defense that the US government is planning on, it's not even second. It's the third option to be used only if there is a pandemic. The first option is to avoid exposure to infected birds and monitor the bird populations. The second is to utilize antivirals. But preparing a vaccine for an outbreak that hasn't occurred is not the vaccine failing, it's being ready just in case. Again, this is being intentionally deceptive.

#8) Zika virus fear is being used to justify the release of genetically modified mosquitoes into the wild

The threat of Dengue and Chikungunya alone are why this program was initiated and why field trials have been conducted. Dengue infects millions of people a year and Aedes aegypti is the most efficient vector of Dengue. It only makes sense to try and knock out the vector. 
Chikungunya translates to "that which bends up." It is intensely painful with join pain usually lasting up to a few weeks. However, for some people the pain can last for years. Believe me, these two viruses alone are justification enough for the release of GE-sterilized mosquitoes. I'm pretty sure that Zika is an afterthought for this program and was only mentioned as a possibility due to sharing a vector and to take advantage of an existing program. Again, this looks like lazy background research at best and intentional deception at worst.

#9) Zika fear is being used to justify spraying MORE of the very chemicals that are causing the shrunken heads in the first place, putting even more children at risk

Pyriproxyfen is not really sprayed for Aedes aegypti as it doesn't control it, but it is applied to water to kill the mosquitoes by preventing them from developing. However, this point is predicated on point 1 being accurate. Since it's not, this point is moot. 

#10) It's the PERFECT MEDICAL SCAM: Spraying more chemicals will cause more deformed babies, resulting in an even greater cry for more vaccines and more chemical spraying... and the cycle repeats
As with point 9, this point is predicated on other points being accurate. In fact, this point relies on all of the preceding points being true. Since this is clearly not the case for most of these (with some not being able to be addressed due to the nature of the argument), this point is meaningless.
This article from the "health ranger" is a prime example of ideology trumping a genuine concern for people and their health, let alone science. You can be sure that Mike won't be there helping the babies born with birth defects because he talked their mothers out of vaccinating. He'll even have the gall to blame it something else and cite his own website as a source. I'm sorry, but he just cannot be trusted. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

A practical guide for dealing with Zika virus while pregnant

A follower asked me a good question today. Are there any good resources to tell pregnant women what to do to limit the risk of Zika exposure? I found various sources but nothing that was as complete as I'd like. With the latest news on Zika virus that it causes birth defects in infected mice, this post is timely.

The absolute best way to reduce the risk of Zika would be a vaccine. Unfortunately, we are still many years away from this being available. Failing that, there are other steps that can be taken. In general, any steps to avoid exposure to mosquitoes can help reduce the risk of contracting Zika. However, there are some additional steps that should be taken to further reduce the risk that are specific to Aedes aegypti (a major vector of the Zika virus). 

Aedes aegypti, this is who you should avoid. Photo credit CDC

General tips

1) Wear long pants and long sleeves whenever outside. This is not the most comfortable thing to do especially in areas where the risk of Zika is the highest, but by giving the mosquitoes less "real estate" to sample, you can lower your risk of being bitten.

2) Make sure all window and door screens are in good repair. Also never leave the door or a window open without a screen. Whatever you do, don't invite mosquitoes in for an all you can eat buffet where you are on the menu. 

3) Using insect repellent is a must. Every time you leave the house, you need to put some on. There are different types of mosquito repellents and they are not all created equally. DEET is probably the best option as it lasts the longest and is very effective. Other good options are Picaridin and IR3535. These have been shown to be safe and effective. However, some people are not fond of man-made chemicals. A repellent made from naturally occurring compounds does exist, lemon eucalyptus oil. The issue there is that it does not last as long as some of the other repellents, so you have to reapply it if you are outside for long enough. Other natural products are essentially useless and do not last long enough to be of use for anything. 

I know the suggestion to use lemon eucalyptus oil will be controversial as DEET is safe and effective; however, the risk of Zika during pregnancy is big enough that I would rather someone use an effective product, like lemon eucalyptus oil, than try some of the other natural products or even use nothing at all. We can debate natural versus man-made another time. Just use a repellent that works.
Aedes aegypti specific tips

Since Aedes aegypti plays a big role (if not the sole role) in Zika virus transmission, I'll give some advice on how to deal with it. A. aegypti is pretty much a pig. It will live in any standing water that it can. It is very much an urban mosquito as it lives near people in their trash. A. aegypti can often be found breeding in old tires, pots, garbage, basically anything that will hold a little water. So it is vital to clean up any trash that is near your home. If you have a birdbath or pond in your yard, you can treat the water with an insecticide, like pyriproxyfen which is safe to use as it is an insect growth regulator and only targets insects. Another thing to consider is that A. aegypti is a daylight biter and as a result is most active from before sunrise to two hours after sunset. It likes to bite indoors (remember to close doors and windows if they don't have screens) and will often hide in dark rooms. 

In summation for A. aegypti:

1) Clean up any garbage or standing water that is near your house.
2) Treat any standing water in ponds or bird baths with an insecticide (such as an insect growth regulator).
3) Make sure you keep doors and windows closed if they are not properly screened. 

Until a vaccine can be released, it boils down to avoiding the mosquito vectors as much as you can. Simple steps like clearing any potential breeding sites (read standing water) and using an insect repellent will help in this. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Vaccine infographics

There have been a couple of requests for all my vaccine infographics to be collated together, so I have put this post together to do that. I am also including a brief explanation of why I have put the risk analysis infographics together the way I have.

Several people have asked if I can put the relative risks of the adverse events from each vaccine/disease together on the basis of what the odds are for this to happen right now. Unfortunately, this is a difficult task and not entirely realistic. In order to do this, I would need to know the percent of the population that is vaccinated, the range of antibody levels they have (called titers), what the genetic diversity of the pathogen is and if there is any potential to escape the immune system (like the influenza viruses do from time to time), how much of the pathogen is circulating, if conditions are conducive to disease spread or not, and probably more factors I've missed. Since these can vary from area to area and change over time, this would be incredibly difficult to calculate. Furthermore, if I was able to figure this out, I'd be publishing in a top medical journal and booking a plane trip to Sweden for an awards ceremony rather than posting it on facebook. So to make this easy and transferable, these infographics are generated on the assumption that you get the disease or you get the vaccination. Those risk factors have been well characterized and the rates are supported by many decades of work.

With that, here are the vaccine risk versus disease risk infographics:

Measles vs. MMR

Mumps vs. MMR

Rubella vs. MMR

HPV vs. three HPV vaccines

More info on the cancers that different HPV strains cause

Hepatitis B virus vs. HBV vaccine

Pertussis vs. DTaP

Whole cell vs acellular pertussis vaccines

Vaccines during pregnancy

Risks of the chickenpox

Risks of shingles

Impacts of the chickenpox vaccine

Why we need a new flu vaccine each year

What is squalene and why is it put in vaccines?

What causes the common cold?

Is Zika virus a new TORCH pathogen?

I have more infographics in development and will update the post as I add them. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"It's not because of a virus, it's those nasty chemicals"***

Another couple of ideas have been presented to try and explain the apparent rise in microcephaly in NE Brazil. I have seen people point to glyphosate, atrazine, and now pyriproxyfen. The biggest problem with blaming these chemicals is that they've been used worldwide and other areas are not seeing an increase. There is also a big issue that needs to be addressed before we discuss the weak evidence against pyriproxyfen. It looks like the number of cases of microcephaly have historically been underreported in NE Brazil. With the new numbers, there has just been a slight increase in microcephaly cases above what would be considered the baseline. This underreporting has had the benefit of helping to identify the possible role of Zika virus in birth defects as it has been closely examined. As a result, new light on the biology and potential for it to cause birth defects in utero has been uncovered.

Pyriproxyfen is an insect growth regulator which generally has low oral toxicity for mammals. For pyriproxyfen, the LD50 was found to be >5000 mg/kg in rats. Pyriproxyfen has also been used for almost 20 years worldwide. The biggest fear here is that villainizing pyriproxyfen will lead to other control measures being taken. DDT is out of the question due to bioaccumulation and biomagnification. Citronella is a repellent that lasts for less time than DEET and it doesn't kill mosquitoes. Pretty much we would be left with organophosphates, and those compounds can be highly toxic (there is a reason why insect growth regulators replaced them). 

We can use a logic tool here to look at this situation. Which is more likely: that the surge in microcephaly cases are due to underreporting combined with an emerging viral pathogen that could cause birth defects, or that the surge is due to an insecticide that has been widely used for many years suddenly causing an issue. Occam's Razor would dictate that the simplest answer is likely the correct one. Human error in underreporting in a small region is far more likely than hundreds of scientists working for many different government agencies worldwide, from the WHO to the EPA, missing a link between pyriproxyfen and microcephaly. 

***Title is satirical 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Debunking the myths surrounding the Zika virus outbreak in South America

So there have been several conspiracy theories presented to suggest that the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was man made. I'll try and address two regarding the outbreak that I have come across.

The first and easiest CT to debunk is the the notion that the Zika virus outbreak occurred because of the field trial of the genetically engineered mosquitoes in Brazil. This is based on the outbreak occurring after the field trial (conducted in 2011) and starting in the general area the field trial happened. However, when the evidence is examined, this CT falls apart.

The location of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, 2015

The interesting thing about this image is that it is shows the occurrence of microcephaly cases and the start of the outbreak. A similar image with the heading intact can be found here. But this map does show an important clue to the start of the outbreak. A large number of microcephaly cases are concentrated around the city of Natal in the state of Rio Grande do Norte (on the eastern tip where the cases are clustered). This is in fact the city where symptoms similar to Zika (but not Dengue or Chikungunya) were first described in Brazil. This next connection is a stretch; the location of the field trials of GE mosquitoes conducted by Oxitec. 

The "location" of the Oxitec GE mosquito field trials
The problem here is that the Oxitec field trials happened in Juazeiro in the state of Bahia and this map is pointing at Juazeiro do Norte in the state of CearĂ¡. Juazeiro do Norte is about 626.1 km from Natal and 371.8 km from Juazeiro. It is 880 km from Juazeiro to Natal (note these are driving distances). So, the actual city where the field trials began is a bit further away from the start of the outbreak. It's still plausible, but less likely. Part of this is because mosquitoes can only travel about 58.2 m so that is a great distance for them to be carried. It also helps to understand exactly what the trials tested.

The field trial tested the ability of GE male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes to impact the population size in the trial location.The results were astounding with a population reduction of >90%. The way that the mosquitoes were altered plays a huge role in the success of the experiment. The mosquito has been genetically sterilized in an improvement on the sterile insect technique. Normally, male insects are sterilized with radiation but that has the drawback of zapping insects with radiation which can reduce their fitness. The GE mosquito is still as fit as any other male mosquito, it just doesn't produce viable offspring. But there is a catch, a common antibiotic called tetracycline can interfere with the genetic mechanism that causes the mosquito to be sterile. This increases the fertility of the males a bit.

The way tetracycline inhibits the sterilization of Oxitec GE mosquitoes.

There is an issue here though, this assumes that the tetracycline would be present in high enough levels to increase fertility, the level needed for this has been empirically determined. Unfortunately for the CT, the levels of tetracycline compounds would need to be 746 to 2500 times greater than the highest reported environmental levels of tetracycline compounds.

Another issue that I haven't brought up is there are two Aedes mosquitoes in Brazil that are of concern, the aforementioned Aedes aegypti and a relative, Aedes albopictus. Although it hasn't been demonstrated to be a vector, A. albopictus populations (I'll have another blog post on this soon) would not be impacted by sterile A. aegypti males. So with two potential vector species (there may be more but that is another blog post), it's not likely that failing to fully knock out ones that escaped the field trial would increase the spread of a virus.

One last point here, I also came across another GE mosquito CT that Bill Gates was spreading Zika virus with the GE mosquitoes. This is crazy because the GE mosquitoes are male and male mosquitoes don't bite. To release something they don't have approval for would be the end of a small company like Oxitec.

The final CT I will discuss, is the claim that the Tdap vaccine is what is causing the microcephaly. This runs the gambit from tainted vaccine to just regular old vaccine and it is harder to address. The basis for this idea is that the Zika virus was discovered in 1947 and there have been no records of microcephaly until the outbreak in Brazil. There are several problems with this idea. The first is that Zika virus was a rare virus in humans until very recently. Also, further analysis of the outbreak in French Polynesia has shown an increase in neurological defects in babies during that time. Another problem is that the Tdap vaccine has never been associated with microcephaly and Brazil has had a 20-fold increase in cases since the outbreak began. They are also suggesting the wrong vaccine if they'd like a chance of being plausible with the CT. Rubella is another virus that causes microcephaly (27% chance if infection occurs in the first trimester), so the MMR vaccine would be the logical choice. 

So in summation, please don't trust everything you read on the internet. Some of it may be the insane ramblings of someone on Reddit, or it might be scare tactics to try and further an agenda.

Saturday, January 9, 2016


 So for today's post I thought I'd share some of the work that I do as a virologist and one of the odd problems I'm having. Part of what I'm doing is looking at how advanced breeding lines of hard red winter wheat react to yellow dwarf viruses under field conditions and movement of the virus into the field over time. There are two different sets of lines that I am looking at. One set is the advanced breeding lines that we want to screen this year and some lines from the previous year. Last years' lines are replicated at two locations whereas the lines being screened this year are at a single location. The location where almost all of my lines are at are doing very nicely and I've detected virus in the field already. However, with last year's lines at the second location, I'm having an issue: geese. There has been a lot of rain the last few months at the second location and a pond has formed. 

This should be a field...

When I went out to the field to collect samples, I noticed that half of the field looked almost like it had been mowed.

What happened to my plots?

Once I inspected the plots closer, I noticed some signs as to who the culprits were.

Very suspicious... 
I'm seeing a pattern here

More evidence

The evidence is mounting.

Signs of consumption and fertilization of the wheat

So I had my answer, geese migrating south have been using the field as a rest stop. Since it's been warmer, the wheat is still growing and green. They had water to play in and a nice bunch of wheat to eat. 
All the dark spots on the water in the first picture are geese.

The noise out there was deafening. I called my advisor to let her know that we had been grazed and she thought I was on the road in town since it was so loud (they were honking like crazy). So pretty much I wasn't able to collect at the second location because geese ate half the plots.

Sometimes, things don't go right in scientific experimentation. This isn't a new revelation as there are twitter pages and numerous articles dedicated to the topic. I've just never had anything like this happen to me. 

Behold, the destroyer of wheat. Photo credit: Manucampa

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Curious Case of Declining Measles Infections

So I had an interesting conversation recently with Destroyed by Science and The Technical Skeptic on the topic of measles death statistics. We were trying to reconcile the US death rate and those published by the WHO. Eventually it dawned on us what the big differences between the two numbers were, so I thought I'd write up a post to discuss it.

The US death rate is 1-2 deaths out of 1,000 cases (0.1 to 0.2%). This makes the measles seem like it really isn't that bad. However, the worldwide death rate is more troubling. Out of 266,701 reported cases there were 145,700 deaths for a rate of 54.6%; this was the source of our confusion. You don't have to be a mathematical genius to realize that 54.6% is not the same as 0.1%. Digging deeper the reasons for this difference becomes quite clear.

A big reason for the dichotomy is because the WHO data is worldwide and is a total. The number of cases and the number of deaths are much lower in developed nations compared to developing nations.

Number of Reported Measles Cases with onset date from May 2015 to Oct 2015 (6M period). 

Because most of the cases are happening in places where the healthcare systems are not as developed, fatalities from the virus are much higher. A big part of this is pneumonia, which occurs in 1 out of every 20 children who contract measles, either from the measles virus itself or as a secondary infection from other viruses or bacteria. Pneumonia is in fact the leading cause of death with the measles. In developed nations hospital care, and antibiotics for cases of bacterial pneumonia, is available for patients which reduces the impact of pneumonia whereas this is not the case in developing countries.

Another factor that reduces the impact of measles in developed nations is the improved nutrition whereas developing nations suffer from malnutrition and deficiencies. In particular, Vitamin A deficiency increases the fatality rate of measles. One of the areas with high numbers of measles cases, SE Asia, also suffers from Vitamin A deficiency despite the availability of a source for Vitamin A that would help alleviate the deficiency: Golden Rice.  This makes opponents of Golden Rice, like GreenPeace, doubly damned as they are not only allowing blindness from Vitamin A deficiency to languish but risking the lives of millions of children to complications from measles.

The final factor that impacts the death rate is the vaccination rate. In most developed nations, or at least until recently, vaccination rates for measles were above 90% which reduces the severity of the disease and reduces the death rate if at least one vaccination dose has been administered and of course more doses offer a higher degree of protection. This has been changing recently with the WHO, The Gates Foundation and others pushing for measles vaccination in developing nations.

Immunization coverage with first measles vaccine dose in infants, 2014

This push for immunization has resulted in dramatic results that cannot be disputed: measles cases worldwide have dropped dramatically since the vaccination program was initiated.

Trend of measles cases compared to vaccination rates worldwide.

So the take away message here is that you can't use the rates in developed nations as the sole determinant for how bad measles can be. After all, measles has a long and brutal history of killing large numbers of peoples exposed to it for the first time. Measles is highly contagious and those exposed to it without the protective antibodies from a vaccine, for example, are very likely to get infected. I won't rest easy around measles until it has gone the way of smallpox or rinderpest (a relative of measles). We also learned that trying to do math late at night is a recipe for disaster.