Pokemon Go gets Us Going

Have you noticed throngs of people roaming your city with their eyes fixed on their smart phones? They congregate at landmarks and, from time to time, let out cheers of excitement. Chances are they are playing Pokémon Go, the latest video game craze!

The game, available on Apple and Android phones, guides players to local sites using GPS technology. At some sites, players can capture virtual Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) displayed on their phones over real-world locations. At Pokéstops, they can find useful items and Poké eggs, which hatch into Pokémon after the player walks 2 – 10 km. Finally, at “gyms”, they can train and battle their Pokémon. The objective is to catch and “evolve” as many types of Pokémon as possible.

Within days of its release on July 6, this “augmented reality” game topped the US App Store. It surpassed Tinder and Twitter in terms of installs and daily active users, respectively. Furthermore, it increased Nintendo’s market value by over $7 billion!

But Pokémon Go is not just benefiting the Japanese company. Doctors believe it is also boosting the health of the game’s ~21 million players. As described above, Pokémon Go forces players to walk extensively throughout their community. According to Jawbone, the average user’s daily step count rose from 6,000 to nearly 11,000 steps in the weekend following the game’s release.

Professor Matt Hoffman can testify: “I’ve spent an hour or two at a time venturing around the community to find Pokéstops. There’s no doubt about it, I am exercising more as a result of playing the game”. In many cases, such exercise replaces detrimental activities, like sitting for extended periods and smoking/drinking to “de-stress”.

In addition to the obvious physical benefits, Pokémon Go is also enhancing the mental health of some users. For people with anxiety, depression, and agoraphobia, it provides “motivation to go outside and explore the world” as well as “a distraction from their fears and inner monologue”. In the words of one user, “I walked outside for hours and suddenly found myself enjoying it. I had the instant rush of dopamine whenever I caught a Pokémon and I wanted to keep going”.

Moreover, unlike most video games, Pokémon Go brings players together in real life (at Pokéstops, gyms etc). Players can interact and discuss their mutual desire to “catch ‘em all”. The result is a “sense of belonging, which can have a positive impact on our emotional and mental health”. This is especially true for individuals will social phobia or autism.

Of course, players should exercise common sense when playing the game. They should follow heat and outdoor safety precautions and avoid walking to dark, isolated places—especially in light of recent robberies. Also, they should look up! Already, several players have landed in the ER after falling into ditches, tripping on curbs, and walking into objects while glued to their phones.

In sum, Pokémon Go is more than a mere video game. It is a “catalyst” for physical activity, a “healthy habit motivator”, and a true community. “If it’s not just a fad”, says Dr. Bhardwaj, “these health benefits are going to be quite significant”.

Want to improve health outcomes for you or your family? Try Pokémon Go and contact Healthy Lifestyle Choices, Shape Up America!, Action for Healthy Kids, Girls on the Run, Memphis Athletic Ministries, and the YMCA.


Texas Abortion Law – Safety Measure or TRAP?

With only 1 week left in its current term, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to decide on a highly controversial abortion case. Known as Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, it is poised to result in “one of the most important rulings on women’s rights in many decades”.

The case revolves around a Texas law (HB2), approved by the Republican-majority state legislature in October 2013. The law requires all abortion providers to adhere to a “long list of conditions in order to keep their practice open”. In particular, they must: 1) offer comparable facilities as ambulatory surgical centers and 2) have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles.

Proponents argue that the law is designed to improve the standard of care and safety for women undergoing abortions. In the words of Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, “The common-sense measures Texas has put in place…protect the health of Texas women”. They ensure that women are not subject to “substandard conditions at abortion facilities”.

Others, however, are calling the law a TRAP…..a “Targeted Regulation on Abortion Providers”. They maintain that such laws primarily aim to make it “almost impossible for [abortion] providers to stay open”. As proof, they note that over 160 American clinics have closed since 2011. Texas now has only 19 clinics, while some states (Arkansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming) have only 1. This means that some American women must wait longer, pay more, or travel 400+ miles for necessary care.

In these ways, TRAP laws endanger women’s constitutional rights. In 1973, the famous Roe v. Wade case declared abortions legal across the U.S. Later, in 1992, another Supreme Court ruling concluded that state regulations of abortion providers must not cause an undue burden to the woman.

But more importantly, TRAP laws may endanger lives. Rather than elevating the standard of care, they may drive women to perform their own abortions or endure high-risk pregnancies. Incidentally, many states with TRAP laws are also at risk of Zika, a virus that can cause severe birth defects.

Now, it is up to the Supreme Court to choose–essentially, on women’s right to choose. Following oral arguments on March 2, the eight remaining justices seemed “split along ideological lines”. A split decision would uphold the opinion of the Fifth Circuit, which ruled in favor of the abortion clinic conditions. However, it would not set a nationwide legal precedent. The justices could also defer the decision to the next term.

Want to learn more about women’s reproductive rights? Contact the Center for Reproductive Rights, URGE, Planned Parenthood or our partners, NARAL South Dakota and A Women’s Pregnancy Center.





The Bitter Fight against Sugar

Americans love the sweet taste of sugar. In fact, the FDA estimates that the average American consumes 20 teaspoons of added sugar daily – almost double the recommended maximum (12.5)!

But this love affair comes at a price. The CDC reports that over 1/3 of American adults and 17% of youth are obese. This costs the US medical system approximately $147 billion per year. Moreover, obesity-related conditions like heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes are among the leading causes of preventable death in the United States. You just can’t sugar coat it.

Government officials have taken note and have tried to curb sugar consumption. Yet, progress has been slow as molasses. Hence, this year, governments are pursuing new and more aggressive tactics.

Last week, for example, the FDA announced a major update to nutritional label requirements on packaged foods. Among other things, food producers will now have to list the grams and percent daily value of added sugar in their foods. They must also indicate the amount of added sugar “per package” and “per serving”, and update serving sizes to reflect what people actually consume. So that 20 oz bottle of coke that you gulp over dinner will now be 1 full serving. The new rules will take effect in July 2018 (or 2019 for small producers).

Of course, not everyone is sweet on the idea. The “outraged” sugar lobby claims the decision is “not grounded in science”, while General Mills argues that labels already feature total sugar counts. But there are also many fans. Michelle Obama, a champion for healthy living, said “I am thrilled…This is going to make a real difference in providing families the information they need to make healthy choices”.  Michael Jacobson, founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, added that new labels should “spur food manufacturers to add less sugar to their products”.

Some cities are going a step further, appealing not to people’s logic but to their wallets. They are imposing a “sugar tax” on each ounce of sugary products. The progressive bastion of Berkeley, California, was the first such city, approving a 1 penny-per-ounce tax in 2014. Other cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Boulder, and Philadelphia are now considering a similar tariff.

In the case of Philadelphia, the mayor has proposed a 3 cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-added drinks, “potentially increasing prices by more than half”. Though the mayor acknowledges the health benefits, he has pitched the tax as a primarily economic measure to reduce healthcare costs and to raise up to $400 million. This money will go to various “services for the city’s needy”, including schools, universal prekindergarten, parks, recreation centers, and libraries.

Some, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, have denounced the tax as “regressive”. They note that poor people consume disproportionately high volumes of soda and will therefore shoulder the largest economic burden. However, a nutrition expert at the University of North Carolina maintains that the poor will simply buy less harmful soda, while enjoying improved public services. In the words of the mayor, “There is no downside to this other than that the three major soda companies may make a little less money”. Philadelphia will vote on the tax in June.

Do you want to learn more about sugar and healthy eating? Check out Let’s Move, Shape Up America, Healthy Lifestyle Choices, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, or the Diabetic Youth Foundation.



Starbucks Grinds Away at Hunger

Starbucks is synonymous with excess – after all, who really needs a $6.00, 440 calorie Salted Caramel Mocha Frappuccino? But now, the high-end coffee company is using its excess for a good cause. It is donating 100% of its leftover prepared meals to food banks and shelters through the FoodShare program.

Starbucks’ involvement in the program dates back to 2010. At that time, the company partnered with Food Donation Connection to donate unsold pastries. All other food, however, was simply wasted at the end of every day. Thus, baristas urged management to expand the program to include perishables, noting “its frustrating to throw away so much food—especially because you know that there are people that need it”.

According to Starbucks Brand Manager, Jane Maly, the challenge was preserving the food’s quality during delivery “so when it reached a person in need, they could safely enjoy it”. The solution arrived in the form of a fleet of refrigerated trucks. The trucks can visit the chain’s 7600 U.S. locations throughout the day to collect any unsold, edible items (including breakfast sandwiches, salads, paninis, Bistro Boxes etc). They can then deliver the items to the Feeding America network, the largest hunger-relief and food-rescue charity in the United States.

Starbucks first piloted the program in Arizona last July. Managers figured that if they could keep food cold and fresh in the heat of the Sonoran desert, they could do it anywhere! After a successful pilot, the company introduced the program nationwide (at participating Starbucks) in March 2016.

The coffee house predicts that it will donate almost 5 million meals by the end of its first year…and more than 50 million meals by 2021! This could take a sizable bite out of America’s hunger problem, which currently affects over 48 million people. As an added benefit, Starbucks will divert food waste from landfills, drastically reducing its environmental footprint. (Feeding America estimates that Americans produce 70 billion pounds of food waste every year!)

Starbucks also believes that its efforts could inspire other companies to do the same. “Our hope is by taking this first step, other companies will see the possibility for their participation and together we will make great strides in combating hunger”. These companies—ranging from grocery stores to restaurants—could even use the same fleet of refrigerated trucks. Then Starbucks’ impact could really go from “grande” to “venti”!

Want to join the fight against hunger? Complete an Op4G survey for one of our partners: Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana, Capital Area Food Bank of TexasOregon Food Bank, SF-Marin Food Bank, Vermont Foodbank, and the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.



Stop the (March) Madness for the Sake of Young Athletes

Within days, March Madness will take over the United States. Sixty-eight teams will compete in the NCAA Basketball Championship—one of the most thrilling tournaments in college sports. But some people are calling for an end to the madness, specifically the “exploitation” of the athletes.

This “exploitation” takes many forms. First, the athletes are completely unpaid – in fact, accepting any payment or gifts renders them ineligible. Yet, the NCAA’s football and basketball programs alone generate over $6 billion in annual revenue! At that rate, experts estimate that the average Duke University basketball player deserves $1,025,656/year. But instead, the money funds multi-million dollar contracts for coaches, athletic directors, and NCAA executives (Alabama’s head football coach made $7.1 million in 2014).

Such “unpaid labor” becomes more egregious when you consider the athletes’ work ethic. According to a 2011 NCAA survey, elite college athletes spend an average of 43.3 hours/week on their sport including practices, games, and travel. They also average 38 hours/week on academics, bringing their total workweek to 81 hours! This far exceeds many full-jobs and leaves little—if any—time for paid work.

As a further blow, most athletes have major expenses (tuition, accommodations, food etc). After all, only the most talented athletes win a full scholarship….and even then, they fall short $3000. Other athletes receive an average scholarship of $10,400 or nothing at all. Unfortunately, tapping trust funds is rarely an option, as many college athletes “come from poverty-stricken communities”. Consequently, according to the National College Players Association (NCPA), as astonishing 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line.

Of course, collegiate sports also take a toll on athletes’ bodies (not just their bank accounts). According to the New York Post, “nearly all who play football — and, increasingly, basketball, baseball and other sports — will experience wear and tear on their bodies that they may not have anticipated”. This includes brain injuries (from concussions), shattered bones, worn-out joints, and torn muscles, ligaments and tendons. Indeed, athletes “risk life-altering injuries [or death] every time they go on the field or court”.

In its defence, the NCAA notes that member schools give over $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships to 150,000 students annually. Some also provide tutoring and life skill training.

The NCAA itself offers funds for student assistance, academic enhancement, and training. It provides paid internships at its Indianapolis headquarters. It finances research into player wellness and safety. And for those unlucky athletes who sustain a catastrophic injury during play, the NCAA sponsors an insurance program.

But perhaps most importantly, in its view, the NCAA provides “opportunities and experiences“. By funding championships in 24 sports, the NCAA give players the exposure needed to “parlay their college records into offers from professional sports teams” (though this benefits only 1.2% of men’s basketball players and 1.6% of football players). The NCAA also enables athletes to play the sports they love and “enhance their overall college experience“.

As a former NCAA athlete, I agree that playing softball was greatly enriching. Some of my best college memories are of practicing at sunrise, traveling to Florida for spring training, and clinching the conference championship. But I can also attest to the financial struggles, long hours, and injuries of college athletes. For this reason, I think we must “go to bat” for athlete rights and interests.

To get the ball rolling, groups have advanced some creative ideas. The NCPA, among other things, has proposed that the NCAA use its $11 billion contract with CBS to provide “truly full” athletic scholarships. The money could also cover graduation bonuses to athletes who complete their degrees. Others have called for reduced contact during practices and an NCAA fund that athletes could access long after college, “when their injuries come back to bite them”. Finally, a group of Northwestern University football players (unsuccessfully) petitioned for the right to unionize and collectively bargain.

The ball is now in the NCAA’s court! If you want to support youth athletics, please give to our partners, Memphis Athletic Ministries, Tacoma Baptist Athletics, and Girls on the Run of Puget Sound.

Flint, Michigan: A City in Troubled Water

The residents of Flint, Michigan are no strangers to hardship. In the past three decades, auto plants have closed, the population has plunged, violent crime has spiked, and poverty rates have reached 40%. But in recent months, the blue-collar city north of Detroit has hit a new low. Lead has contaminated the city’s water supply, leading to widespread poisoning and a state of emergency.

The crisis originated in 2011. After years of economic decline, the city was “so broke that it was taken into state receivership”. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promptly ousted the mayor and city council and appointed a series of emergency managers to govern and reduce costs. In 2013, one manager decided to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the new Karegnondi Water Authority (both draw from Lake Huron). But as the connecting pipes were not yet built, he ordered officials to temporarily pump from the Flint River – at a projected savings of $1 million/year. Flint River water began chugging through city pipes in April 2014.

The Flint River is a “cesspool” tainted by farm runoff, sewage, and decades of industrial effluent. To make matters worse, the river’s water is highly corrosive to lead (19 times more than Detroit water!). Yet the state refused to add a required anticorrosive element, costing just $9000. As a result, the water corroded lead throughout the system, including lead pipelines connecting homes to city water mains and lead solder used to fuse copper pipes. This lead then leached into Flint’s water supply.

Almost immediately, residents complained about the cloudiness, colour, taste and smell of the city’s water. However, the effects were more than cosmetic. Many reported that the water was “making them sick”, causing rashes, hair loss, headaches, eye irritations, and other health problems. After a flood of warning signs, the city council called on the emergency manager to switch Flint back to Lake Huron water in January 2015. But the calls went ignored. [Outrageously, only GM received a “special hook-up to clean water” after car parts showed corrosion].

The EPA started to grasp the grave danger in summer 2015. In a June memo, an employee wrote “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water”. Moreover, “The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern”. Still, a state of Michigan spokesperson advised Flint residents to “relax”, claiming that test results just didn’t hold water.

By late summer, however, the poisoned water supply became undeniable. Researchers from Virginia Tech found that some Flint water samples contained 13,200 ppb of lead – far above the EPA limit (15 ppb) and even the threshold for hazardous waste (5000 ppb)! Likewise, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha compared children’s blood with earlier samples, proving elevated lead levels.

But it wasn’t until October 2015, after months of denial and deception, that Michigan officials acknowledged the environmental nightmare. Governor Snyder switched Flint’s water back to Detroit’s system at a cost of $12 million.

Already, the damage was done. Besides the visible impacts, the lead has likely caused significant neurological damage, particularly in Flint’s 8,657 children under 6. According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure affects brain development resulting in “irreversible” effects like reduced IQ, behavioural changes (such as shortened attention span and increased antisocial behaviour), and reduced educational attainment! It can also cause anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and toxicity to the immune and reproductive systems.

The economic impact is also significant. Many victims now require costly healthcare and social services, including special education. The city’s $2.4 billion in home value has gone “down the economic drain”, leaving numerous residents with “a net worth of zero”. Moreover, many companies are struggling to stay afloat in Flint, while others are avoiding the city altogether.

Like Flint water, the solution to the disaster remains unclear. Under the current state of emergency, officials are using $5 million in federal funding to provide water, filters, water test kits, and other necessary items. Non-profit groups, like the American Red Cross and Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, are joining in. Furthermore, the Michigan National Guard and police are going door-to-door delivering water…and warnings.

Once basic needs are met (in the world’s richest country!), attention must turn to fixing Flint’s water system. Simply switching back to Lake Huron water was not enough, as the pipes are now severely corroded. Some suggest recoating the pipes with anticorrosive element but this could take over six months. Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, argues that “we have been emotionally traumatized and need new pipes” (costing up to $55 million). Others call for a compromise: gradually replacing every lead service line, while coating pipes with phosphates.

Over the long-term, the government will need to fund various health and social services for victims. In the words of Dr. Hanna-Attisha, we need to throw “all of these wraparound services at children” or risk “lifelong, multigenerational consequences”. Governor Snyder is currently seeking $195 million for this purpose. Finally, come hell or high water, we must identify and prosecute the perpetrators of this fatal fiasco. Already, hearings are underway on Capitol Hill. In addition, the Department of Justice, FBI, and Environmental Protection Agency are investigating possible crimes, including misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter.

Do your part! Please complete an Op4G survey for the American Red Cross, or donate to: the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, or the United Way of Genesee County.


E-Cigarettes – Behind the Smoke and Mirrors

Using e-cigarettes, or “vaping”, is among the hottest new trends. Due to a lack of regulation, a variety of flavors (7700), and aggressive marketing, e-cigarette use has skyrocketed in recent years. This is particularly true in the youth demographic, where use tripled from 4.5% in 2013 to 13.4% in 2014. As a result, youth e-cigarette use has surpassed youth cigarette smoking. The $1.7 billion e-cigarette industry is also on track to outsell tobacco products within a decade. Yet, little and conflicting information exists about the safety of this new product. What’s behind the smoke and mirrors?

E-cigarettes are a type of Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (like e-pens, e-pipes, e-hookah and e-cigars). They contain a cartridge filled with nicotine, other liquids like propylene glycol, and flavorings. During vaping, a battery-powered heating element heats the cartridge, releasing a chemical filled aerosol. The end of the e-cigarette glows, just like a real cigarette. The user then exhales a cloud of vapor, resembling smoke.

Because no tobacco burning occurs during this process, evidence suggests that e-cigarettes “may be safer than regular cigarettes”. When used as instructed, the levels of dangerous chemicals inhaled are a “fraction” of those from their tobacco counterpart. Thus, according to Dr. Siegel at Boston University, e-cigarettes are preferable to cigarettes. Some also believe that vaping can assist people in quitting smoking, much like nicotine gum.

But don’t light up just yet. Tests reveal that most e-cigarettes contain at least traces of solvents. In addition to irritating lungs, solvents can “transform into something more worrisome: carbonyls”. Carbonyls include known or suspected carcinogens (cancer causing chemicals) such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde.

Another dangerous chemical in e-cigarettes is nicotine. For adults, nicotine consumption is associated with cardiovascular disease and poisoning. For kids and teens (often drawn to e-cigarettes by the candy flavors and ease of purchase), nicotine can affect brain development. Finally, for fetuses, nicotine can cause lasting consequences for brain and lung function, pre-term delivery, low birth weight, and stillbirth.

Unfortunately, these nicotine concentrations have not caused e-cigarettes to replace tobacco (which also contains the highly addictive chemical). In 2013, 76.8% of those who recently vaped also smoked cigarettes. Some even believe that e-cigarettes could be a “gateway drug” to tobacco by creating nicotine addictions and “making smoking popular again”. Hence, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research has not approved e-cigarettes as a safe or effective method to quit smoking.

That is what we know – but there is still so much we don’t know about vaping. Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not yet regulate the 500 brands of e-cigarettes, their exact ingredients are unclear. Initial tests hint that the toxins and nicotine levels in e-cigarettes vary considerably within and between brands. The levels also differ from what packages indicate.

Knowledge of vaping effects is also incomplete. In the words of R. Morgan Griffin, “research into the effects of e-cigarettes lags behind their popularity”. Plus, it will be years before we can discern the effects of long-term use or second-hand exposure.

Through all this haze, a few key take-aways emerge. First and foremost, if you don’t smoke, do not start vaping – there are risks and no health benefits. Secondly, if you smoke cigarettes and wish to quit, don’t rely on e-cigarettes to ease the transition. Rather, opt for an FDA-approved method. Finally, if you plan to continue smoking, talk to your doctor about safer alternatives. Such alternatives may ultimately include e-cigarettes, but further research and regulation is necessary.

To learn more about e-cigarettes and vaping, please contact Action on Smoking and Health, the Foundation for a Smokefree America, or our partners, the American Lung Association and Healthy Lifestyle Choices.



The Skinny on Weight Loss: How Much is too Much?

Every January, millions of Americans vow to lose weight. This year, 40% of Americans have made such a New Year’s resolution. For many, the motivation is to “get fit” or “be healthy”. Others want the figures of celebrities like Taylor Swift or Jennifer Lawrence. But how thin is too thin?

According to the Center for Disease Control, the Body Mass Index (BMI) is the standard tool for classifying weight. It equates to the body mass divided by the square of the body height. A BMI under 18.5 is considered “underweight”, while a BMI of 25+ is “overweight”. Thus, a healthy 5’9” person would weigh between 125 and168 pounds.

In recent years, however, popular culture has severely distorted this concept of healthy weight. Magazines and runways are among the worst culprits, often glamorizing skeletal models. In fact, an editorial/fashion model today ranges from 5’6” and 90 pounds to 5’11” and120 pounds. With these dimensions, models weigh ~23% less than the average US woman. Moreover, “most runway models meet the Body Mass Index criteria for anorexia”.

Psychiatrists say there is no definitive causal link between exposure to such models and eating disorders in women. But in a survey of Grades 5 to 12 girls, 70% indicated that “magazine images influence their ideals of a perfect body”. This cohort suffers disproportionately from anorexia (at a rate of 2.7% versus 0.6% for the adult population).

Thus, governments are beginning to take action. Last month, in France, parliamentarians passed a bill requiring models to secure a doctor’s certificate confirming their health. Employer penalties include up to 6 months in jail and a $81,000 fine. Furthermore, all images that digitally alter a model’s silhouette must be labelled as “touched up”.

And France is not the only country to act. In 2006, Spain banned models with a BMI of under 18 from participating in Madrid’s fashion week. Shortly thereafter, Italy’s fashion industry agreed to follow a voluntary code to keep unhealthy models off the catwalk. Finally, in 2012, Israel required models to prove a BMI of at least 18.5.

Sadly, these efforts were too late for some. In recent years, models like Isabelle Caro, Ana Carolina Reston, Luisel Ramos, Eliana Ramos, and Hila Elmalich all succumbed to anorexia. So too have thousands of Americans, as an estimated 4% of anorexic individuals die from complications related to the disease. In fact, anorexia is said to have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

To learn more about healthy eating, please contact our partner, Healthy Lifestyle Choices. To combat anorexia, contact the National Eating Disorders Association, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, the Joy Project and the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness.

Former Sun Worshipper Sheds Light on Skin Cancer Risks

Tawny Willoughby is a striking 27 year old, with long blonde hair and deep blue eyes. But last week, the southern belle posted some gruesome photos of herself online. The photos show a close-up of Tawny’s face, covered in oozing blisters and crimson scabs. The culprit? A cream-based treatment for skin cancer.

This wasn’t Tawny’s first case of skin cancer. Since turning 21, Tawny has faced six diagnoses: five for basal cell carcinoma and one for squamous cell carcinoma. Each case has necessitated painful procedures to remove the cancer, including surgical excision, liquid nitrogen freezing, curettage, and electrodessication.

Tawny’s battle against skin cancer can be traced back to her teens. At that time, she began to tan 4 – 5 days a week in a tanning bed. In fact, like several friends, she had her own personal tanning bed at home! Other days, Tawny soaked in the Alabama sun outdoors. In her words, “Everyone tanned … I didn’t really even think about the future or skin cancer at the time.”

In reality, however, UV exposure from tanning beds or sunlight is the leading cause of skin cancer—particularly for fair individuals with a family history of melanoma. Such exposure can damage skin cells’ genetic material, leading cells to grow uncontrollably. Indeed, research suggests that tanning bed users are 74% more likely to develop melanoma. Furthermore, sustaining 5+ blistering sunburns in youth can increase non-melanoma skin cancer risk by 68% and melanoma risk by 80%.

It is thus no surprise that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States—the land of the coveted bronze glow. Approximately 3.5 million are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer and 137,000 are diagnosed with melanoma each year. In 2015, these two types of skin cancer are expected to result in 6230 and 9940 deaths, respectively. That equates to 1.8 deaths every hour.

On the bright side, skin cancer is highly preventable. Simply minimizing exposure to UV light could prevent over 3 million cases of skin cancer annually. To do so, dermatologists recommend seeking shade between 10am and 4pm (when your shadow is shorter than you), covering up with tightly woven fabrics, applying broad spectrum sunscreen and lip balm with a 30+ SPF, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. Finally, avoid tanning beds and sun lamps, as “more people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking”.

Fortunately, people are starting to see the light. In response to Tawny’s viral photo, now shared nearly 70,000 times, people have pledged to “get rid of [my tanning bed]” and to “never tan again”. Tawny is amazed with the results, stating “it makes me really happy to…help someone save their skin and possibly their life.” She adds, “You only get one skin and you should take care of it. Learn from other people’s mistakes.”x

To learn more about skin cancer, please contact the Skin Cancer Foundation, the American Melanoma Foundation, or our partners Kure It Cancer ResearchOregon Cancer Ski Out, the SAMFund for Young Adult Survivors of Cancer.

Scientists Feverishly Defend Vaccines after Measles Outbreak

1321321They say Disneyland is the “happiest place on earth”. But over the last month, the theme park has become the epicenter of a major measles outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 121 Americans across 17 states contracted measles between January 1 and February 6. At least 103 cases (or 85%) are linked to a California woman who became contagious at Disneyland. She later spread the virus further by traveling to Washington state.

The outbreak has raised concerns across the US. After all, the CDC describes measles—which can cause pneumonia and encephalitis—as “the most deadly of all childhood rash/fever illness”. To make matters worse, the virus is highly contagious. Transmitted via coughing and sneezing, it can survive for up to 2 hours on surfaces and infect 90% of unvaccinated people nearby. As a result, an estimated 20 million people contract measles worldwide every year.

In the US, however, the disease has become relatively rare. For over 40 years, public health officials have administered a 97% effective Mumps, Measles, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, mostly to children and college students. Thus, the average number of measles cases has dropped to 62 per year (from 2001 – 2011).

But here’s a bitter pill to swallow: the trend appears to be reversing. A rumor linking vaccines and autism, spread by people like Jenny McCarthy and discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, has triggered a growing anti-vaccination movement in the US. This is producing “large pockets of unvaccinated children through whom epidemics can spread further”. In fact, in 2014, 79% of US measles cases involving those unvaccinated due to “personal belief”.

This “anti-vaxx” movement has scientists in a fever pitch. Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Chief of Infectious Disease with Public Health Ontario, says “There is absolutely no evidence at all” that vaccines cause autism. Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, adds “This is not a problem with the measles vaccine…This is a problem of the measles vaccine not being used“. Indeed, “The anti-vaccine movement has turned this public health victory into defeat”.

Still, perhaps some good can come from the latest measles outbreak. In California, for example, parents are waking up to the danger of the anti-vaxx movement and are “pushing back“. This has prompted certain schools to send unvaccinated children home. In other states, like Mississippi and West Virginia, governments have banned parents from refusing vaccinations for their children on philosophical/religious grounds.

To learn more about the measles outbreak, or about the MMR vaccination, please contact our partners, Healthy Lifestyle Choices, the Virginia Association of Free Clinics, and the International Red Cross.


Flickr photo credit: Evan Long