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The Strange Mental Quirk That’s Endangering the Public’s Health

“Actions have consequences,” as the saying goes. Inaction, by contrast, is a mostly neutral state of being—or so it often seems in our mind’s eye.

We are, in fact, predisposed to think that harms that result from our actions are worse than those that arise from our inaction. Sins of the first variety can whisk us into “Thou shall not” territory. Sins of the second, we tend to think, are crimes of mere idleness, laziness, or thoughtlessness at worst.

That bifurcation is deeply ingrained in the human psyche—and it can get us into big trouble. As Ilana Ritov and Jonathan Baron have shown in various research studies, such “omission bias”—the instinctive belief that doing something is inherently riskier than doing nothing—can often lead to the far greater harm.

I thought of this (and of my old interviews with Baron, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania) as I read through a 104-page report on public attitudes about vaccines (and about trust in medical science in general), which is being released today by the Pew Research Center.

The report drives to the heart of what, quite astoundingly, has become a matter of emotional public debate in recent years: whether or not vaccines are safe. And while the Pew found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (82%) say that vaccinating healthy children against measles, mumps, and rubella ought to be a requirement for attending school, there is still a frighteningly plump wedge of Americans (17%) who believe that vaccination should be optional. (The share of those with children under the age of five who believe the latter is even higher, at 22%.)

Such doubt over vaccine safety and even over the necessity of these inoculations—a viral holdover from a now-retracted 1998 Lancet study that claimed a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism—has become endemic in America. President Trump raised the issue during his campaign and stoked additional speculation over his views in the days soon after the election—causing public health experts to worry that one of the great bulwarks against the spread of infectious disease in the U.S. may soon crumble. (Rebecca Robbins at STAT had a lovely piece on this on Tuesday.)

I won’t belabor the old fact-based arguments when it comes to vaccine safety and, importantly, public safety. The CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and many, many others have done that already.

But the bottom line is that failing to vaccinate our kids against serious and preventable illnesses is itself a serious and preventable mistake. Inaction has consequences too.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

UNC researchers are attempting a revolutionary approach to treating brain cancer. Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have uncovered a groundbreaking approach to treating one of the hardest-to-treat cancers – glioblastoma, a rapid-onset brain tumor. A team led by Dr. Shawn Hingtgen was able to transform human skin cells into neural stem cells which were then re-engineered to activate a “prodrug,” which is a type of treatment that remains inert until it’s specifically harnessed within the body, that can then attack the cancerous tissue in the brain. This is significant for several reasons. For one, glioblastomas are extremely aggressive. “Speed is essential,” said Hingtgen in a statement. “It used to take weeks to convert human skin cells to stem cells. But brain cancer patients don’t have weeks and months to wait for us to generate these therapies. The new process we developed to create these stem cells is fast enough and simple enough to be used to treat a patient.” Furthermore, brain cancer is particularly tricky because it’s so difficult to get the drugs to the right place. Hingtgen’s team had already shown the technique’s promise in mice; now, it appears to be effective in humans, too. “We’re one to two years away from clinical trials, but for the first time, we showed that our strategy for treating glioblastoma works with human stem cells and human cancers,” he said.

Malware is cybercriminals’ method of choice. A new report from IBM Managed Security Services finds that nearly half of all successful health care-related cyber attacks originate from malware – foreign data that works its way into a web system and then hijacks its operations. What’s even more concerning is that 19% of these successful attacks are deployed by taking advantage of weaknesses in data processing – a critical part of health IT infrastructure. The report also confirmed earlier predictions that ransomware will continue to flourish in 2017. (Healthcare IT News)

INDICATIONS

Roche’s CEO thinks Trump’s drug pricing threats are all bark and no bite. This week, I asserted that President Donald Trump’s big pharma wish list on drug pricing and domestic manufacturing is easier said than done, and that drug makers are unlikely to significantly change their behavior. At least one industry giant CEO has now come out and said just as much, arguing that Trump’s bark is worse than his bite. Roche chief Severin Schwan doesn’t think that the administration and U.S. lawmakers are about to slap stricter drug price regulations on the industry anytime soon. During a bullish Q4 2016 earnings call, Schwan explained that the very notion of restricting access to a novel drug over price (a common practice in most other western nations) is anathema to the American spirit. “If you have true innovation, with true added value, the U.S. will be the first country to honor that innovation,” he said.

Can AstraZeneca right the ship? AstraZeneca detailed a dour earnings reality during an earnings call this morning, with patent expirations and the ensuing competition from generic rivals eating away at its bottom line. But that’s not dampening CEO Pascal Soriot’s spirits. Soriot, who’s led the U.K. pharma giant for five years, touted an “inflection point” that will lead to long-term growth buoyed by what he says is a promising pipeline of drugs. But the firm has its work cut out, especially considering its late entry into the red hot cancer immunotherapy game. AstraZeneca shares fell about 2% in morning trading.

THE BIG PICTURE

The CDC wants to beef up its quarantine powers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is pushing for significant new powers to quarantine Americans without the approval of state and federal officials. Proposed regulations would allow the agency to detain people anywhere in the country – a far cry from the privileges it currently holds, which are limited to a smattering of diseases and usually involve international travelers. While some public health advocates are praising the proposition, civil liberty advocates worry that it could amount to a power grab. (NPR)

REQUIRED READING

Reckitt Benckiser Is In Talks to Buy Mead Johnson, by Reuters

Fast Food Wrappers May Still Contain Toxic Chemicalsby Justin Worland

Google Cloud Exec Exitsby Barb Darrow

GoPro’s Drone Is Back on the Market Just 3 Months After Its Recallby Julia Zorthian

Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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