The Northern Lights of Twitter

It is March 17, 2015, and a solar storm is brewing. The strongest storm since August 2005. This means one thing: for much of the Northern Hemisphere, a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.

If you want updates on where in the world you can see the Northern Lights, you can check NOAA’s real-time aurora forecast, but the map is not very intuitive and is hard to translate into “should I go outside and look right now?” So instead, I checked Twitter.

Click here for The Northern Lights of Twitter Map with Timestamps.

Click here for The Northern Lights of Twitter Storify.

According to Twitter users, the Northern Lights are visible tonight in Ontario, Alberta, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine, and Norway. (I performed the survey by monitoring the search term “northern lights” on Twitter, since it was more popular than the hashtag #NorthernLights, and cherry-picking geographically disparate locations to record. By the nature of the search I’m sure I missed many locations. Just while composing this post I have seen additional posts in Alaska, Sweden, Michigan, and Ireland.)


MMR Vaccine Actually Prevents Autism–By Preventing Congenital Rubella

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet that has since been repeatedly and widely discredited, claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might cause autism. No such thing is true. It later came to light that Wakefield had violated ethics in many ways and deliberately lied about the results, and The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010.

Unfortunately, much damage was already done, as thousands of parents had decided not to vaccinate their children. In recent years, measles epidemics have been making a comeback, especially in Europe, where the MMR autism scare was greatest. In 2011 alone, measles outbreaks in Europe sickened 26,000 people and killed nine.

The irony of all this is that the MMR vaccine has been preventing autism all along, by protecting pregnant women from rubella.

Image by Sanofi Pasteur. Used under Creative Commons license.

The rubella virus

Rubella—the virus putting the R in the MMR vaccine since 1971, when the combined vaccine was licensed—is not generally a fatal or even severe disease. Like the common cold, it is transmitted by airborne droplets. Patients can be contagious for a week before showing symptoms. In children, rubella can cause a fever, sore throat, and a rash of pink spots that spread from the face across the body. In adults, it may also cause headaches, pinkeye, and arthritis.

But the greatest danger is if a pregnant woman contracts rubella, especially during her first trimester. Rubella can cause congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) in the fetus. CRS is characterized by permanent birth defects, including hearing loss, cataracts, heart abnormalities, diabetes, liver damage, and autism.

A study led by Bryn Berger at Emory University estimated that, between 2001 and 2010 in the US alone, rubella vaccination prevented about 1200 cases of autism spectrum disorder. The study was published in the journal BMC Public Health in 2011.

Based on research in Jamaica and mathematical modeling in Norway and Australia, the researchers conservatively estimated that the incidence of CRS in the US without the rubella vaccination would be about 4 per 10,000 births. Taking that number and multiplying it by the number of births in the US from 2001 to 2010, they estimated that 16,600 cases of congenital rubella syndrome were prevented by rubella vaccination in the US just those 10 years.

Berger and his colleagues then used a 1971 study by Stella Chess that looked at 243 preschool children with CRS. This was just after a worldwide rubella epidemic from about 1963 to 1965—the US alone saw 12.5 million cases of rubella, about 11,000 babies who died after contracting the disease, and 20,000 children born with CRS. Chess’s study found that 7.4% of the 243 children with CRS had either full or partial autism.

If the rubella vaccine prevented 16,600 cases of CRS, and roughly 7.4% of those would have had autism, then the vaccine prevented autism in about 1,200 US children over ten years.

The authors of the study point out that by using Chess’s numbers for the percentage of CRS children who have autism, they are actually underestimating the number of autism cases being prevented, because the diagnostic criteria for autism have widened since 1971.

Rubella was declared eliminated in the US in 2004, and in the Americas in 2009, thanks to the rubella vaccine, first developed in 1969 by Maurice Hilleman and later improved into the form we use today by Stanley Plotkin.

But rubella has not yet been eliminated completely. Worldwide, about 100,000 babies are born with CRS each year. Even in the US and other places where rubella has been eliminated, people from areas where rubella still occurs can travel or immigrate here, bringing the virus with them. So women who are thinking of becoming pregnant are advised to get a rubella vaccination four weeks before pregnancy if they haven’t already been vaccinated or developed immunity. Once a woman is pregnant, the rubella vaccination is not recommended until after she gives birth.

Clearly not everyone who becomes pregnant has four weeks of advance warning to get a rubella vaccination. So what happens when all the kids who haven’t gotten the MMR vaccine grow up and begin getting pregnant?

Phil Gara

Phil Gara, filmmaker and MBA candidate at the Sloan School of Management, tries to avoid labels. He has been to a film school run by Werner Herzog, plays forward on the MIT ice hockey team, and participated in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. He has produced and directed a number of documentary films and shorts, including Project Z (which examines global security issues via zombies), Occupy Central Park, and Morning on Mars (about the Mars Rover landing). I spoke with him about his internet presence, snap judgements, and the essence of drama.

AN: So, you did a film school with Werner Herzog. What was that like?

PG: …He’s able to focus on a level that’s much different than what everyone else is able to do. It’s, I think the success of his films is just the ability to focus in on a subject, and focus so deeply that you draw insights that would otherwise escape anyone else.

AN: You also made a film, Occupy Central Park.

PG: That was about the Occupy Movement. It was about this kid trying to organize a concert in Central Park in the middle of this movement. It just kind of followed for a month this effort… I mean, that was one of the films I made. I guess for some reason that one shows up more in Google results or something?

AN: I just zeroed in on that because I have actually been there.

PG: It definitely does make me less employable, I find.

AN: Really?

PG: Well, I mean, I’m in business school, right? I definitely notice whenever I apply for a job, my film page, facebook views get like a huge amount of views, and, I don’t know. I just imagine that for a large company that’s risk-averse, it’s not necessarily something that’s gonna help me get a job. … I’ve just kinda let that stuff all stay out there, but it’s definitely something I always think about. You know, if you have this stuff in public everyone can kinda infer things. If you actually watch the film, it’d be a pretty sort of even-handed look at the movement, etc. But those are all things you can’t really infer from just a search term or something.

AN: I understand that you were also involved in Hurricane Sandy relief.

PG: Yeah, I did a little bit of that. … I have all these pictures and videos I still haven’t done anything with. … The way I did it would just be going with a friend of mine… to Staten Island, kind of walk the streets to see people who were working on their houses, just clearing out sheetrock, and just asking if they needed a hand. Usually that was more effective, I felt, than going through a large organization. …I kind of wish I had done a more of an in depth film about the whole Sandy thing. …The ones I’ve seen kind of didn’t capture it, just how rough it was for a lot of people.

AN: What do you think is the most important thing about you that’s not available on the internet?

PG: I always worry about the inferences that people draw from the limited amount of information on the internet, and it can’t really judge your intent or your thought process, etc. The sort of tagging and search-term-keyword way of the internet organization seems to lend itself toward labels…and so I’m always worried about being labeled and having false inferences drawn from those labels. So let’s say, for example, if you made a film about the occupy movement, that would connote a bunch of different labels. …I’m always trying to be in between and avoid labels. Like, I did make a film about occupy but I’m also in business school. So that’s kind of, to some people, a contradiction… The one concern I have is that people just kind of infer the worst every time…this is some, you know, radical lefty with Occupy, or then some business school robot. And there’s definitely–hopefully–some room in between. I don’t know if it’s easy to see that with just the information that’s out there.

AN: What is it about your values that motivated you to do both of those things? What’s the overlap?

PG: I don’t know. The one thing that I did learn from filmmaking, maybe even the Werner Herzog seminar, is that the essence of drama is…the main actors are involved in a story that they’re kind of unaware of and that’s what’s interesting to the audience. You’re seeing them play out something but they’re not fully conscious of it, and I think that’s the way it is with everyone’s life. You’re driven by certain things but you’re not fully aware of those things…So I would say it’s hard to have an answer to that, but I’m sure there’s some reasons. But that’s more for other people to interpret I guess.

AN: But not on the internet.

PG: Well, I’m just worried. On the internet it makes it really easy to just superficially tag people but what I’m talking about is sort of sustained look at someone’s life and trying to infer a kind of grander theme to it all that takes a little more time and reflection. I don’t know if we get that. There’s definitely a mythical quality to everyone that I’m not sure you get on the internet.

So I made this video, a little taste of what it would be like if Werner Herzog turned his formidable focusing powers to interpreting Phil Gara’s publicly available internet life: