Why Funding to the Environmental Protection Agency Should Matter to You

Many news sources are reporting that funding for new grants and contracts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are frozen and scientists are barred from communicating with the public. This may be a normal part of the transition between administrations as new political appointees enter the agency. However, the new administration has made it clear they want to slash the EPA’s budget and this is something that should concern us all.

The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment. If you enjoy clean water and air, you can thank the hard working people at the EPA. Budget cuts could mean that clean up and monitoring of Superfund sites may be neglected. There is a Superfund site very close to the municipal ground water wells that supply my family and 300,000 other people with drinking water (want to know if you live near a Superfund site: https://www.epa.gov/s…/search-superfund-sites-where-you-live). An EPA grant is being used to test the lead levels in Flint, Michigan. I could go on and on about the valuable work done by federal funding to the EPA.

The scientists at the EPA are funded by us, the taxpayers, and we deserve to know what they are finding. Hiding evidence of climate change or pollution by industry doesn’t change the fact that it is happening. Reasonable people can disagree on what action we should take and how to prioritize jobs, the environment, and other factors, but we should all be working off the best available evidence.

Happy Voter Registration Day!

In honor of National Voter Registration Day I plan to send the following announcement to my Introductory Biology class:

Today is National Voter Registration Day. The deadline to register to vote in California is October 24th if you want to vote in the November Presidential Election. College students can register to vote at either their college address or permanent home address. You can register to vote online or by mail: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/voter-registration/. You can check your voter registration status here.

I hope that you use some of the critical thinking skills you are learning in your college classes to carefully consider the many issues on this year’s ballot. For some of you, it is your first chance to vote for president. At ScienceDebate.org you can see the presidential candidates’ stances on some important science issues, including biodiversity, vaccination, mental health, and public health. There are many other races on the ballot, including a California Senate seat, every House seat, and many local offices. California also has 17 ballot initiatives this year, including propositions regarding marijuana legalization and two opposing measures on the death penalty. This year’s book in the SJSU Reading Program is Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. Stevenson co-founded the Equal Justice Initiative and has spent his career representing poor clients on death row. This book is a very eye-opening look into the application of the death penalty in this country that you may find useful as you consider Propositions 62 and 66. KQED’s Forum also had a very good discussion of the two initiatives. I hope you will all join me at the polls on November 8th.

Happy National Immunization Awareness Month: Spotlight on the Chickenpox Vaccine

August is National Immunization Awareness Month and a time to celebrate all the pain, suffering, and deaths avoided thanks to vaccines. I’m currently on maternity leave and very thankful for all of the people who have been vaccinated and help to protect my daughter until she is old enough to be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, the Bay Area has dangerously low immunization rates in many places (you can find out the immunization rate at the kindergartens in CA here), which compromises herd immunity. This month is a great time to discuss how vaccinations can protect your children from painful and often deadly diseases. In a previous post I discussed how serious a case of the measles can be, especially for babies where there is a 1-2 in 1000 chance they will die. Today I’d like to talk about the importance of the Varicella or Chickenpox Vaccine.


Babies like my daughter rely on herd immunity to stay safe from vaccine preventable diseases

Some people think that children are given too many vaccines and often point to the chickenpox vaccine as one that is unnecessary. There is extensive evidence that the vaccine schedule suggested by the CDC and endorsed by every reputable medical organization is safe and effective so I won’t spend time on that here (see the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center or the CDC for more information). What I would like to discuss is why it is important for your child to get the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine.

Chickenpox is an unpleasant and sometimes fatal disease

If you are my age you have likely had chickenpox and probably remember the itchy bumps. Chickenpox is extremely contagious and most of us had it along with our siblings. For most children chickenpox is a mild disease, though definitely unpleasant and disruptive to school attendance and parent work schedules.  About 1 in 1000 children will get severe pneumonia, though, and before the widespread use of the chickenpox vaccine about 70 children died every year. Chickenpox is especially dangerous for babies under 1 yr old and anyone over 15. There are heartbreaking stories of babies too young to be vaccinated and adults that never got chickenpox dying from a ‘simple’ case of chickenpox. If there is a chance my baby can die from a disease I definitely want her to be vaccinated.

The virus that causes chickenpox can lead to a painful case of shingles later in life

Following a case of the chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in your body and can reappear later in life as a painful disorder, shingles. Shingles causes a painful, blistering skin rash that persists for 2-4 weeks. A common side effect of shingles is post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) where the pain from shingles lingers for months or years. Some people also experience vision loss from shingles.  About 1 in 3 Americans will get shingles in their life and there are ~1 million shingles cases in America per year. The incidence of shingles increases with age and about half of shingles cases occur in people over 60. The chickenpox vaccine uses a live but weakened strain of the virus that can still cause shingles, but at a much lower rate than the live virus. In about 40 years once the first generation vaccinated for chickenpox ages we will know the level of shingles reduction that can be gained by widespread chickenpox vaccination. For now, there is a shingles vaccine that is recommended for people over 60.

The chickenpox vaccine is very safe and side effects are usually mild

The most common side effects from the chickenpox vaccine are pain at the injection site, a low grade fever, and a rash near the injection site (rash occurs in ~4 in 100 people). The chickenpox vaccine is very safe and helps prevent your children from getting an uncomfortable and potentially deadly disease. Seeing a child get shots is often hard on parents, but you can find some evidence based tips for how to keep your child as happy as possible during routine vaccinations at the Science of Mom blog.

Want to learn more about vaccines? 

The internet contains a lot of misinformation about vaccines and it is important to get your information from trusted sources. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a great Vaccine Education website with easy to understand information about every vaccine recommended for your child, including the dangers of your child contracting that disease and the known side effects of each vaccine. This site has been recognized for its accurate information by the World Health Organization (WHO) and is a member of WHO ‘s Vaccine Safety Net, which aims to provide accurate public health information to the public online. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also has a very good Vaccine Safety site.

Action Alert: Call Your Representative TODAY to Ask Him/Her to OPPOSE the Brat Amendment

The House begins consideration of HR 6 the 21st Century CURES Act today (Thursday July 9th) This bill has bipartisan support and would establish an $8.75 billion Innovation Fund to provide NIH with an additional $1.75 billion a year and the FDA an additional $110 million for the next five years. The money for this Innovation Fund currently would come from mandatory spending instead of discretionary spending, which can get lost in the annual budget fights. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has already identified money for this fund from profits from selling some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (see this FAQ for an explanation of the funding) and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this bill will reduce the federal deficit by more than $500 million over the next 10 years.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) plans to offer an amendment to make the NIH Innovation Fund come from discretionary funding. Since this would defeat the purpose of the Innovation Fund, please ask your Representative to oppose Amendment #29 to the 21st Century Cures Act.

You can find your Representative’s number here:  http://www.house.gov/representatives/

Below is a sample script written by the American Physiological Society’s Science Policy Office:

Congressional offices expect to get phone calls from constituents expressing views for and against pending legislation. Therefore, you can explain the reason for your call to the receptionist.


“My name is ___________, and I am a constituent of Rep. ________.”

“I support the 21st Century Cures Act because it will increase funding for life-saving biomedical research at the NIH. The bill is H.R. 6.

“Please ask Rep.______ to oppose Brat amendment #29 because it will undermine the Innovation Fund that is meant to help NIH meet crucial health challenges.”

Further talking points are provided below, but please call TODAY.


  • Provides funding for life saving research and treatment and contributes to the economic engine of research and development
  • Identifies funding to “offset” the cost of the Innovation Fund and reduces the federal deficit by more than $500 million over the next 10 years (according to the Congressional Budget Office)
  • Maintains the Appropriations Committees as gatekeepers to set funding levels annually for biomedical priorities

For more about the bill, see the House Energy and Commerce committee’s website http://energycommerce.house.gov/cures.)

Action Alert: Help Pass CA SB277 And Remove Personal Belief Exemptions for Vaccines

California SB277, which would eliminate the personal belief exemption for public school children in California, is currently working its way through the state legislature (discussed in a previous post). This week following a very heated public comment period, SB277 passed the Health Committee. On Wednesday April 15th the bill will be discussed in the Education Committee. Please join me in contacting your legislators and the members of the Education Committee to voice your support of the bill. The group Vaccinate California has made it very easy to contact your representative. You can also sign up for their web alerts to keep up to date about the progress of the bill.

Below are the phone numbers of all Education Committee members, please take the time to call and ask for their support. The anti-vaccination side has been quite vocal, so we need to let our legislators know that a clear majority of Californians know that vaccines are safe and effective and support this bill.

Sen. Bob Huff (916) 651-4029
Sen. Connie Leyva (916) 651-4020
Sen. Carol Liu (916) 651-4025
Sen. Marty Block (916) 651-4039
Sen. Loni Hancock (916) 651-4009
Sen. Tony Mendoza (916) 651-4032
Sen. Andy Vidak (916) 651-4014
Sen. Richard Pan (916) 651-4006 (SB277’s sponsor–you can call to thank his office)

Resources About the Safety and Efficacy of Vaccines

A sample call or email script (including an example of my personalized response in bold):

Dear State Senator/Representative ____,

I am writing/calling to encourage you to support the bill introduced by Senators Pan and Allen that would eliminate the personal belief exemption for vaccination in public school children. The science is clear, vaccines are safe and prevent millions of deaths a year. The efficacy of vaccination rests on herd immunity and California vaccination rates are dangerously low. This has led to recent outbreaks in whooping cough and the measles, which are incredibly dangerous diseases, especially to babies too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems. Controlling these diseases is also costly to the state and strains our public health resources. [if desired you can add something personalized here like: As a scientist and soon to be mother, this is a very important issue to me. When my baby is born in May, I am worried she will be needlessly exposed to dangerous diseases due to the high concentration of people who have chosen not to vaccinate in the Bay Area. I have a PhD in Biomedical Sciences and am trained to read and understand medical literature. I can assure you that the research supporting the safety of vaccines is sound. I would be happy to discuss this further with your office, provide you with easy to understand information about how vaccines work and the evidence that they are safe, or provide any other assistance you may need in making your decision.] Please help prevent needless outbreaks and deaths by supporting this bill and eliminating the personal belief exemption for vaccination in public school children.

Thank you for your consideration of this issue,