Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.


Published on the Dec. 18, 2015 Burroughs Wellcome Fund website

Asking Questions in the Great Smoky Mountains

By Whitney L.J. Howell

In the Great Smoky Mountains, Madison High School senior Chloe Schneider discovered something she never knew before. The mountains are home to a rich variety of snail species – but, some of them are in severe trouble.

Ordinarily, knowing details about the state’s mollusk population serves as a random bit of trivia for a party game. But, for Schneider, this knowledge was critical. Nearly 50 percent of North Carolina’s snails are endangered, but the ones in the Great Smokies are losing ground thanks to environmental changes.

The Millenial Youth Led Expedition (MYLES) of Science program showed the Marshall, N.C. native why it’s important to understand the impacts on the snails’ ecosystem.

“We could really tell how the acid rain has affected the environment and, how if we continue to have acid rain and pollution in the environment, that things will only get worse. Snails won’t be able to live in those areas anymore,” said Schneider, describing the work of her six-person team. “It’s crazy to see how much impact we have and how what we release into the environment can affect other species.”

MYLES, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF)-supported initiative, introduces high school students to science along the Appalachian Trail. BWF funded MYLES in 2013 with a nearly $60,000, three-year grant to support up to 100 participating students. Over the past two years, according to Dottie Shuman, Ph.D., MYLES grant administrator, surveys conducted at the beginning and end of each week-long program show the program meets BWF’s goal of fostering an augmented interest in and knowledge of science.

During six week-long summer expeditions, she said, students work alongside college-student guides and National Park Service (NPS) rangers, learning protocols and collecting data about the Western N.C. mountains to support long-standing NPS research projects. Students can also present their findings at scientific conferences throughout the school year.

“These students are excited about real science – testing hypotheses and setting up data collection,” she said. “They come back with knowledge about the natural resources at our fingertips, and they’re excited about protecting them.”

And, students don’t leave the program empty-handed – they take some scientific equipment with them. They carry hand lenses and water-test kits home to continue their investigations on their own.

In addition, according to NPS ranger and MYLES program staffer Susan Sachs, program staff hope students will leave MYLES thinking of science as a viable career option.

“A lot of times when students think of science, they think of lab coats and being indoors,” Sachs said. “We want to show them how we use science to study and protect the parks.”

To meet this goal, students participate in on-going NPS research into snail and salamander habitats and the outside influences affecting them. The six-person teams are also encouraged to form their own research questions and hypotheses, but all data gathered contributes to the investigations that have been active for at least a decade, Sachs said.

For example, this past summer, several teams examined how acid rain has impacted the mountain’s snail and salamander populations. Air quality in the area has improved over the past 10 years, but damaging rains still fall with greater amounts hitting the higher elevations, she said. Teams gathered data about soil pH and species diversity, compared it to historical data, and analyzed whether said diversity has increased or decreased over time. They determined, Sachs said, that fewer salamanders now live in the more highly-acidic, upper elevations.

“We use student data to look at salamander health. We might not notice the decline in population if we didn’t have the data students collect,” she said. “This way, we can monitor how changes in moisture and climate change affect these amphibians.”

Frequently, students take their new-found knowledge back into the high school classroom. In fact, two-time participant and high school junior Jalen Ward said hands-on experience with forming hypotheses and analyzing data has been helpful in his advanced placement science classes at Fike High School in Taylor, N.C. But, more importantly, he said, it’s impacted his future plans.

“I’d like to major in biology and maybe be a wildlife biologist working with North Carolina’s wildlife,” he said. “I enjoy the outdoors, so working with nature would be a way to do for a living what I already love to do.”
It’s that type of insight into the value of science as a career and forward-thinking that makes the MYLES program so important, Sachs said. It doesn’t take long for students to develop a deep appreciation for the significance of outdoor science and the opportunities for investigations it presents.

“After this program, science isn’t just something they learn in school. There’s a real value to it,” she said. “A lot students think we do a study and have answers. But, they learn that questions often only lead to more – and better questions.”

To read the story at its original location: http://www.bwfund.org/newsroom/awardee-profiles/myles-go

December 18, 2015 Posted by | Education, Science | , , , , | Leave a comment

Clusters of unvaccinated kids create WNC health time bomb

Published on the Dec. 16, 2015 Carolina Public Press website

By Whitney L.J. Howell

In the middle of Western North Carolina sits one of the state’s most potentially dangerous time bombs. And, at any given moment, under the right circumstances, it could go off.

Despite North Carolina’s requirements that school-age children have up-to-date vaccinations before starting kindergarten, 5 percent of Buncombe County’s kindergarten population remained unvaccinated for the 2014-15 school year. Statistics for the 2015-16 school year are not yet available.

According to Dr. Jennifer Mullendore, medical director for Buncombe County Health & Human Services, the percentage is higher than previous years and is six times the state average.

With up to 20 percent of each of the county’s schools allowed to be unvaccinated, the possibility exists for a significant public-health crisis, she said.

“We’re holding our breath, waiting for an outbreak,” she said.

“We’re fortunate the measles outbreak in California (in April) didn’t make it here. Next time, we might not be that lucky.”


In North Carolina, a child can remain unvaccinated for two reasons: a medical exemption and a religious opt-out. Based on N.C. Department of Health & Human Services statistics, out of

Buncombe’s 2,488 kindergarteners, one has a medical exemption, including a waiver from a healthcare provider, and 125 opted out for religious reasons. Or at least that’s officially what they claim. The state does not offer a philosophical exemption, even though that’s exactly what some anti-vaccination groups in Buncombe Cuonty have advocated. It’s likely that not all “religious” waivers are faith-based.

Upon kindergarten enrollment, parents must present schools with their child’s official immunization record. Schools keep these records on file, including any medical or religious exemptions. Children without exemptions have 30 days to provide proof of immunization or they aren’t allowed to return to school.

In addition to Buncombe County, Polk County and Transylvania County round out top three WNC locales with the highest non-vaccinated rates, reporting 4.71 percent and 2.89 percent non-vaccinations, respectively.

Henderson County has the second highest total number of children without vaccinations — with one medical waiver and 14 religious exemptions. However, because this is a relatively large county for WNC, it’s rate is not especially out of the range seen in most counties across the state.

Elevated sickness

Although no widespread outbreaks have occurred, Buncombe frequently experiences a higher-than-average incidence of pertussis, also known as whooping cough, a highly contagious respiratory disease known for uncontrollable, violent coughing that makes it hard to breathe.

Despite being preventable with a vaccine, in 2014, Mullendore said, the county had 65 reported cases. Only Duplin County, a rural county near the coast known for its pig farms, had more with 138 cases.

There were 782 cases of whooping cough reported statewide in 2014.

But, knowing the reasons behind the high non-vaccination rate is difficult, Mullendore said.

“We suspect immunizations have done a great job keeping people healthy for 50-plus years, and people don’t have context for why immunizations are important,” Mullendore said.

“People who grew up in the 1960s had friends and family who died from diseases that we have vaccines for now. Younger people raising kids now never saw that, so we’ve lost that perspective.”

Immunizations for North Carolina’s children are free through the Vaccines for Children program, even for uninsured individuals. It’s possible, though, other factors that typically limit access to healthcare are also at play, including cultural or language barriers that make it difficult to take advantage of healthcare services, and, in this case, a low level of education about vaccines.

Tara Rybka, public health educator with the Transylvania County Public Health Department, said that although it’s never been directly connected to a lack of immunization, transportation difficulties frequently play a role in limiting access to healthcare services in counties like hers.

Herd sensitivity

In many cases, Mullendore said, parents research vaccines on their own, trusting potentially non-vetted, online sources rather than asking their pediatrician or other healthcare provider for information about possible risks and benefits associated with vaccinating their children. Some choose not to vaccinate based on their online findings, leaving the overall community more vulnerable to preventable disease.

Doing so is particularly dangerous, said Noel Brewer, associate professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Vaccines provide herd immunity, he said, protecting the vaccinated and sheltering those who can’t receive vaccines due to conditions that compromise their immune systems, such as cancer.

On the flip side, however, non-vaccination can also create herd sensitivity, a phenomenon that gives rise to more severe cases of disease as individuals get sick at older ages.

Since most people are vaccinated, the risk of herd sensitivity might not seem too bad. But Brewer said this perception is misleading.

“Herd sensitivity is worse than people think,” he said. “Birds of a feather flock together, so those who are unvaccinated tend to stay together. But, you never have a pocket where 95 percent of people are vaccinated. It’s usually spread out to 80 percent or it can fall to 50 percent. These are the places that are vulnerable to outbreak and the spread of disease.”

Vaccination foes

Even with the risks of non-vaccination publicized throughout the healthcare community, Buncombe County has a relatively active anti-vaccine cohort, including Moms Against Mercury.

Based in Leicester, this organization, which did not return calls for comment, publicizes and supports the belief that mercury present in vaccines adversely affects the nervous system.

In recent years, the group has held six rallies, lobbying against the use of vaccines in their current forms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), though, the type of mercury used in vaccines – ethylmercury – is metabolized and cleared from the body far faster than the type of mercury – methylmercury – present in some types of fish. Consequently, CDC data states, ethylmercury is far less likely to be harmful.

Educating the public

County health officials are working to combat anti-vaccine efforts, Mullendore said. Last year, the Department of Health & Human Services worked with healthcare and childcare providers to expand educational services around the facts and benefits of vaccinating children.

Rather than targeting staunch anti-vaccine proponents who tend to dig their heels in when faced with information that contradicts their beliefs, health officials are reaching out through public forums to parents who are curious about vaccines. The effort could ultimately influence those who are on the fence about whether to vaccinate to proceed with immunizations.

Jennifer Garrett, director of nursing with Macon County Public Health also suggested holding school-based vaccination clinics to reach students who aren’t yet vaccinated. Macon’s health officials also reach out via phone to non-compliant parents to set up appointments for children to be vaccinated.

Ultimately, though, UNC’s Brewer said, the onus is on parents in communities with unvaccinated children to take steps that will side-step exposure to preventable disease. When children are sick, keep them home from school, he said, and know which pediatricians still choose to treat children who don’t have current vaccinations.

And, Brewer added, public health officials should continue to push for more widespread vaccinations.

“Getting information into the hands of those who are vaccinated can be helpful,” he said.

“More information needs to come from educators and physicians in the community. Not everyone will want to vaccinate, but more people are open to it than we currently believe.”

To read the story at its original location: http://www.carolinapublicpress.org/23894/clusters-of-unvaccinated-kids-create-wnc-health-time-bomb


December 18, 2015 Posted by | Family, Healthcare | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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