Thursday, January 31, 2013

Skyrocketing Executive Pay and the Educational Salary Gap

Superintendent Fat Cat?

Despite the passage of California’s Proposition 30, which holds the state’s education funding steady at 2011-2012 levels, none of the $20 billion that has been slashed from K-12 funding over the past 4 years will be restored. Consequently, school districts will continue to operate on austere budgets, with overcrowded classrooms, reduced course offerings, and reduced numbers of teachers, librarians, nurses and counselors. This has led to a record 188 state school districts at risk of financial collapse. Yet, like the bailed out banks and automobile industry, many districts have managed to find the money to offer their top executives lavish raises.

Perhaps the most notable example is Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)—the nation’s second largest school district—which has struggled with a $2.8 billion deficit over the past five years, while laying off 10,000 teachers. At the same time as LAUSD has cut teachers and services, it has boosted Superintendent John Deasy’s salary from $275,000 to $330,000 (according to the Bay Citizen)—roughly five times the average teacher’s salary. Since 2009, LAUSD has increased its superintendent’s salary 32%.

California Watch has investigated 40 of the largest districts on the state’s financial watch list (those at risk of financial insolvency) and found that more than half have raised their superintendents’ salaries since 2009. For example, Riverside Unified School District raised Superintendent Richard Miller’s pay from $267,208 to $314,963, despite having cut $100 million from its budget since 2008-09. The Lynwood Unified School District raised its superintendent’s pay by roughly 23%, from $200,000 to $245,000, two years ago, even though it has had ongoing budget deficits, including its current deficit of $6.8 million.

While the primary cause of California’s education budget problems has been the declining business, property and income tax rates, overly generous executive pay has added to the problem. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie capped superintendent salaries and New York is considering similar legislation, the Bay Citizen reported. A superintendent pay cap is not currently under consideration in California.

Proponents of high superintendent pay argue that superintendents are charged with much bigger and more important responsibilities (i.e., protecting and nurturing the “innocents”) than are corporate executives, yet they are paid only a fraction of what CEO’s of similar sized companies are paid. On the other hand, CEO pay has been skyrocketing over the past few decades and is now at its highest level ever relative to the median pay of their employees, contributing to the growing wealth and income gap and declining working and living standards for the majority of Americans.

It is also complete nonsense that executives need or deserve to earn 1,000 times, 100 times or even 2 times more than their employees. This argument is based on the fallacious notion that responsibility for large budgets and large numbers of employees is tougher and more valuable than other occupations. Yet it is the employees who do all the really difficult work. It is the employees who create the profits in private business and the bosses who pocket the difference between the wealth they create and their salaries. Though superintendents do not earn profits from their teachers’ labor, they have far more control over their own working conditions (and consequently less stress) than teachers. It is the teachers who have the most direct influence over the safety and success of the “innocents.” It is the teachers who design creative and engaging curriculum; create positive, nurturing classroom environments; and who communicate with parents about their children’s wellbeing and needs. So if it’s really all about the children, then it is the teachers, not the superintendents, who should be getting the six-figure salaries and 20-30% raises. 

Today in Labor History—January 31

January 31, 1606 – Guy Fawkes jumped to his death moments before his execution for treason. Guy Fawkes belonged to a group of provincial English Catholics who planned the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fawkes, who had converted to Catholicism, also fought in the Eighty Years' War on the side of Catholic Spain against Protestant Dutch reformers. He later travelled to Spain to seek support for a Catholic rebellion in England but was unsuccessful. In 1604 Fawkes became involved with a small group of English Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, who planned to assassinate the Protestant King James and replace him with his daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth (From the Daily Bleed and Wikipedia)

January 31, 1912 – A General Strike began in Brisbane, Australia that lasted until March 6. It came in response to the suspension of tramway workers for wearing union badges. (From the Daily Bleed)

Tanks and soldiers billeted in the Saltmarket area of Glasgow in the weeks following the 1919 Battle of George Square
 January 31, 1919 – Bloody Friday occurred in Glasgow when 60,000 demonstrators gathered in George Square in support of a strike and police launched a vicious and unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, felling unarmed men and women with their batons. The demonstrators retaliated with fists, iron railings and broken bottles and forced the police into a retreat. An estimated 10,000 English troops were sent to Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of George Square. Monday February 10th the strike is called off. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 31, 1940 - Ida M. Fuller became the first person to receive an old-age monthly benefit check under the new Social Security law, receiving a check for a whopping $22.54. She paid in $24.75 between 1937 and 1939 on an income of $2,484. (From Workday Minnesota)

January 31, 1972 – The IRA called a general strike, the day after Bloody Sunday.
(From the Daily Bleed)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Graduation Rates Highest in 40 Years

High school graduation rates are now at their highest level since the 1970s. In 2009-2010, 78.2% of students earned their diploma in four years, compared with 75.5% in 2008-2009. The graduation rate peaked at 78.7% in 1969-1970 and declined steadily until recently, dropping as low as 71% in the 1990s (data from Bloomberg News). The largest increases were among African American and Hispanic youth.

On the one hand, we should all take a step back and relax. Our schools are not failing—they are improving—and the frantic push for reform is excessive and unnecessary, or at least not urgent.

On the other hand, the market-driven reformers would love to take responsibility for the gains and claim that their privatization schemes have worked, thus justifying more of the same. Yet there is no clear evidence to support this and there are plenty of other plausible explanations.

For one, we live in a very different world than we did in the 1960s and 70s, when there were ample decent-paying jobs available to those without a high school diploma. Back then, dropping out of high school and going to work in a blue collar trade or on an assembly line made economic sense, particularly if one lacked the money or grades for college. Today, this is a much riskier option. Many of these jobs have disappeared and the ones that remain pay much less than they used to. Indeed, the youth unemployment continues to be substantially higher than the overall unemployment rate (16% for those under 25, as of November 2012).

Another option for high school dropouts has been the military. While this was a poor choice in the 1960s and early 70s, when the risk of dying in Vietnam was relatively high, from the mid-70s through the 1980s a person could make a decent living in the military without much risk of ever seeing combat and many lower income youth took this option. However, joining the military today could easily lead to a risky tour of duty (or several tours) in a violent and volatile region of the world.

While some reforms have no doubt also contributed to the rising graduation rate, these are not necessarily the market driven reforms like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, privatization and vouchers, Value-Added Measures of teacher effectiveness or Common Core Standards. Rather, increased funding for and enrollment in programs like Head Start and preschool—which help close the achievement gap that exists prior to entering the K-12 education system—increase students’ self-efficacy and school-readiness, thus improving their chances of succeeding in school over the long-term. This might also be one of the reasons why K-5 math test scores have increased so much over the past decade.

Another hypothesis that has been proposed is the closing of “dropout factories.” On the surface, this seems like a no-brainer: close the schools that produce the dropouts and more kids will necessarily graduate from school. The problem with this hypothesis is that is says nothing about where those students end up after their school has been closed or why they were dropping out at high rates in the first place, let alone whether they graduated from their new schools.

If they were dropping out because of a poorly administered school or incompetent teachers and they were reassigned to one with good management and effective teachers then we should expect an increase in graduation rates. However, because graduation rates are strongly correlated with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, simply changing schools, teachers or administrators should not solve the problem. Many of these students have had poor academic success throughout their lives, resulting in low self-efficacy and they have given up on school.

Furthermore, the likelihood of graduating on time from high school is directly linked with students’ experiences in middle and elementary school. For example, students with high absenteeism in grades K-5 have a much higher rate of dropping out of high school. This is because they are behind in credits and prerequisite knowledge due to their absences. Poverty also leads to a significant achievement gap before kids have even started kindergarten, a gap that tends to grow with time unless mitigated early, in the pre-K and K-5 years. As a result, by the time they enter high school, many are reading far below grade level and lack the study and social skills necessary to succeed in high school. Shutting down “dropout factories” does nothing to solve these problems.

Another hypothesis that is seldom discussed in the media is the changes to teacher attitudes and training that have occurred over the past two decades. In the past, it was relatively common to track students based on their perceived or assumed abilities, which led to classes that were highly segregated by race and economic background. This likely contributed to children’s sense of alienation from school and sense that they could not succeed. Today, education programs (and many K-12 schools and districts) place a great deal of emphasis on learning how to relate to and support children from diverse backgrounds. There has been an effective movement to eliminate (or reduce) tracking and encourage children of all ethnicities, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds to take challenging courses (e.g., Advanced Placement), apply to college and maintain sufficient credits and grades to get into college. As a result, there have been large increases in the numbers of students taking and passing AP exams from virtually all backgrounds.

Anecdotally, from my own experience, it seems there has also been a growing movement for teachers, counselors and support staff to become more personally involved in students’ lives, to notice when students seem to be falling through the cracks and to contact home and help them access the appropriate support services. If this is indeed a growing trend, it could also help explain the higher graduation rates, as it would help many at-risk kids overcome the obstacles to graduating on time.

Graduation rates have steadily climbed for the last decade. During that time, teen pregnancy, drug use and violence have declined. It could be that our children are simply better behaved and more willing to do what is expected of them than their parents’ generation was.

Today in Labor History—January 30

January 30, 1826 – Gustave Lefrancais (1826-1901) was born on this date. Lefrancais was a French revolutionary, member of the First International, participant in the Paris Commune and a founder of the anarchist Jura Federation. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 30, 1909 -- Organizer Saul Alinsky was born on this date i, Chicago, Illinois. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 30, 1919 - The International Labor Organization (ILO) was founded on this date. The ILO is an international watchdog for workers' rights. (From Workday Minnesota)

January 30, 1970 – For the second time in six months, rioting broke out during an anti-war protest in East Los Angeles. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 30, 1970 – 20,000 rioted in Manila to protest the regime of U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos following his State of the Nation address. Over 2000 attempted to storm the presidential palace on the 30th & riots continue throughout the year.
(From the Daily Bleed)

January 30, 1972 – Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland occurred on this date when British soldiers gunned down 14 Roman Catholic civil-rights marchers in Derry.
(From the Daily Bleed)

January 30, 1992 – Chicago gravediggers ended a 43-day strike. (From the Daily Bleed)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Union Membership Lowest in 70 Years, Thanks in Part to Unions

Union membership declined from 11.8% of the workforce in 2011, to 11.3% in 2012, according a recent report by the national Bureau of Labor Statistics and is now the lowest it has been since the 1930s, according to the Washington Post. Union membership peaked in the 1950s at nearly 33% of the total workforce. By 1983, that number had dropped to 20%, and today it is just barely 11%.

Public sector union membership (35.9%) is still significantly higher than private sector union membership (6.6%). However, it also saw the biggest losses in 2012, due largely to state budget cuts and public sector union-busting campaigns and legislation (e.g. Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana).

It is easy to blame the economy and politicians, which is what both the unions and the press have been doing, and these both have played a role, but the unions themselves must also take some of the responsibility for their own demise—a natural consequence of their own misguided objectives, policies and tactics.

Let’s start with a simple tactical mistake: letting employers layoff non-tenured or probationary employees. In a union shop, all workers pay dues and are supposedly represented by the union, even if they are probationary and contractually can be fired at will. Unions have typically taken the stance that this is the boss’ prerogative and that there is nothing the union can do about it. Yet the unions have collected dues from these future laid off employees and led them to believe they were supporting them. This, alone, can have a significant impact on workers’ attitudes about unions, particularly among younger workers who are generally the most recently hired and first to be laid off (why join a union or participate when they will only take your money and abandon you as soon as times get tough).

This is probably one reason why union membership rates are highest among workers aged 55-64 (14.9%) and lowest among youth aged 16-24 (4.2%). Of course older workers are also more likely to have already seen the benefits of a union, either through a well-negotiated contract or by virtue of having worked at both union and nonunion jobs in the past. They are also more likely to have higher pay and better benefits than their younger colleagues, which can drive a wedge between them and undermine solidarity.  This has been exacerbated by the two- and three-tiered contracts that many unions have negotiated with employers in exchange for reduced layoffs and less odious concessions for their veteran members (see UAW discussion below).

Another problem is that despite their increasing use of Facebook and Twitter unions are still organizing like it’s the 1950s. They have not learned how to appeal to younger workers culturally or materially. They presume that all workers have the same simple goals—job protection (whatever the cost), higher wages and benefits—and they fight for these goals in the same traditional ways (bargaining, concessions, lobbying, letter writing, buying politicians). Yet they seldom send out organizers to listen to their members (young and old, alike) and solicit their opinions, desires or strategies.

On a broader scale, the unions, particularly the AFL-CIO, have taken a nationalistic (and naïve) approach to job protection in hopes that their complaints about human rights abuses abroad will keep their jobs from being sent overseas. This has been an utter failure because employers move their operations to wherever they can get the cheapest labor and raw materials, regardless of a country’s human rights records. Indeed, this is often seen as an advantage (i.e., cheap workers who are too terrified of prison or assassination to form a union or make demands on the employer). Thus, if Americans want to prevent their jobs from being exported to other countries, they need to work in solidarity with international unions to win improved wages, benefits and working conditions for the oppressed workers of those countries, bringing the standard of living and cost of labor in those countries more in line with our own.

As I write this, Jorge Parra, a General Motors worker from Columbia (and president of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors), continues his hunger strike at GM Headquarters in Detroit to protest the mass firings of injured GM employees in Columbia (and their continued refusal to allow unions in their Columbian facilities). As noble and courageous as Parra’s protest is (he is on the 55th day of his hunger strike and extremely weak, while comrades in Columbia are routinely assassinated for union activity), the UAW has only paid lip service solidarity to the Columbian workers. Certainly many rank and file members have come out in support of Parra, but the UAW is not authorizing any sort of job action to get their Columbian colleagues their jobs back. Indeed, the UAW is so terrified of losing domestic jobs to Columbia and other lower wage countries that it negotiated a two-tiered contract with the big three automakers (after they slashed 250,000 jobs and received billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money) in which new hires are paid less than $15 per hour, less than half the traditional wages of auto workers.

Another broad strategic failure of the unions is their increasing reliance on politics at the expense of organizing and job actions. Supporting candidates and campaigns seems less risky than strikes (e.g., no injunctions, fines, jail time, beatings) and more exciting for the union bosses (e.g., wining and dining with the ruling elite). But it is also a phenomenally expensive longshot gamble that pits unions against billionaire bosses and their Super PACs in hopes of getting their guy elected so he might support one or two initiatives that might help workers a little if they happen to pass. It is an incredibly circuitous and unreliable strategy.

Consider the California Teachers Association, which pumped millions of dollars into Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor (and nearly $212 million on state political campaigns over the last decade). All the teachers got in exchange for their donations, phone-banking and canvassing was a CTA lobbyist on the state school board and a threat by the governor to slash K-12 funding again if California voters didn’t approve a tax hike (Proposition 30). Not surprisingly, voters did approve Prop 30, which held state funding at 2011-2012 levels, but did nothing to restore any of the $20 billion that was slashed from K-12 funding over the past 4 years. As a consequence, schools will not have to lay off any more teachers, but there are still the thousands who were laid off over the past four years who will not be rehired—that is, thousands of former public sector union members, many of who no longer belong to any union (and some, who are no doubt still looking for work).

None of these failures, however, are inconsistent with the social contract that has always existed between unions and employers: the employers’ role is to provide jobs and the unions’ role is to keep employees working and profits rolling in (e.g., make concessions and get a quick contract, avoid strikes at all costs). Granted, the unions have always been the lesser partner in this relationship, their status and power dependent on their usefulness to employers. What we are seeing today with the declining power of unions is employers’ recognition that they no longer need the unions to keep the workers in line.

Today in Labor History—January 29

January 29, 1834 – Chesapeake and Ohio Canal workers rioted on this date, prompting President Jackson to send in troops, the first time American troops were used to suppress a domestic labor dispute. Workers were rebelling because of terrible working conditions and low pay. The canal project had been designed by George Washington and was intended to facilitate transportation of goods from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River Valley. Construction teams were made up mostly of Irish, German, Dutch and black workers who toiled long hours for low wages in dangerous conditions. The use of federal troops set a dangerous precedent that gave business leaders the confidence that they could count on the federal government to quash labor unrest in the future. (From the Daily Bleed and

January 29, 1889 – 6,000 railway workers struck in to demand union recognition and an end to 18-hour workdays. Police and militia busted the strike. (From TWU)

January 29, 1932 - The first state unemployment insurance law was enacted in Wisconsin. (From Workday Minnesota)

January 29, 1936 – Rubber workers engaged in a sit-down strike in Akron, Ohio, helping to establish the United Rubber Workers as a national union. (From Workday Minnesota)

Monday, January 28, 2013

The New Witch Hunt for Psycho Children

Future Serial Killers! (Image from Flickr by Ano Lobb@healthryx

Every time there is a new school massacre, school districts across the nation reevaluate, refine and retest their emergency protocols. The emphasis is always on training teachers in security procedures and identifying potential psychos—even though school shootings account for fewer than 10 deaths per year—with little or no emphasis on providing better overall mental health services for all children at school or improving the conditions they face at home and in their communities (e.g., chronic poverty or physical, mental and sexual abuse)—problems that affect thousands of children every year.

Thus it is reassuring to hear that some school districts are now looking into improving overall mental health services in their schools. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Sunday that San Francisco Unified (SFUSD) is promoting a “new nationally recognized program to identify and help at-risk students,” in which teachers use standardized questionnaires to assess their students’ mental health.  For example, teachers are asked to determine whether a student often, occasionally or rarely seems depressed.

There are, however, several significant problems with the program. First, it requires teachers to do the job of mental health experts, something for which they are unqualified and untrained. While it is possible that this is intended to be the most efficient means of evaluating every child (there are far more teachers than mental health professionals in the school systems), it is also a way for districts to continue to underfund mental health services by having relatively inexpensive teachers do the work of comparatively more expensive psychologists and psychiatrists. Thus, while there may be improvement in the identification of children with mental health needs, there will continue to be insufficient resources to help them.

Another problem is that the program is inherently biased. For example, regardless of whether the program was designed in direct response to recent school shootings, its implementation now, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, will no doubt be in the back of teachers’ minds as they complete the surveys, potentially influencing their responses. Likewise, because the surveys are subjective (teachers are asked to rate each student on how often he or she exhibits each behavior), teachers could inadvertently (or deliberately) portray a student as at-risk because he was a disruptive thorn in the teacher’s side.

As a consequence of being so vague and open-ended the questionnaires are likely to lead to many false positives. Some of the questions could be answered affirmatively for large percentages of students who are simply typical teenagers with little to no risk of ever acting violently toward their peers, themselves or teachers (e.g., Is the student defiant or oppositional to adults? Does he get angry easily? Does she disrupt class activities or have difficulty sitting still?) None of these are evidence that a student will become a school shooter or even necessarily in need of mental health intervention.

According to the Chronicle, several teachers have already been disciplined for refusing to complete the surveys.

Today in Labor History—January 28

January 28, 1861 – The first national coal miners' union—the American Miners Association—was founded on this date. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 28, 1914The Edmonton, Canada city council caved in to the IWW, agreeing to provide a large hall for the homeless, pass out three 25-cent meal tickets to each man daily and employ 400 people on a public project. (From the
Daily Bleed)

January 28, 1918 – General Strikes occurred in the large cities throughout Germany. The Berlin strike lasted through Feb 3rd. (From the Daily Bleed)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Today in Labor History—January 27

January 27, 1850 – Samuel Gompers, president and founder of the American Federation of Labor was born on this date in London.  (From TWU and Workday Minnesota)

January 27, 1891 – A mine explosion in Mt. Pleasant, Pennsylvania killed over 100 workers. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 27, 1920 – Kansas mine workers went on strike against compulsory arbitration. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 27, 1969A group of African-American auto workers in Detroit who were known as the Eldon Avenue Axle Plant Revolutionary Union Movement led a wildcat strike against racism poor working conditions. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 27, 1986 – Hormel workers were locked out for honoring an Ottumwa, Iowa picket line. (From the Daily Bleed)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Today in Labor History—January 26

January 26, 1886 – In Decazeville, France, miners attacked the home of their sub-manager at Watrin Mines, after he slashed their wages by 10%. He died when he jumped from his window. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 26, 1897 - The Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America received a charter from the American Federation of Labor to organize "every wage earner from the man who takes the bullock at the house until it goes into the hands of the consumer." The union merged with the Retail Clerks International Union in 1979 to form the United Food and Commercial Workers. (From Workday Minnesota)
Free Speech Costs Money--Dole Corporate Person (Image from Flickr by takomabibelot)
January 26, 1907 – Over 100 years before the OWS movement, anti-corporate personhood activists won a small and short-lived victory when Congress blocked corporations from contributing to election campaigns for national office. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 26, 1937 – A two-day sit down strike occurred at a Brooklyn power plant leading to a large scale organizing drive in New York subways. (From TWU)

January 26, 1983 – The National Commission on Excellence in Education, using bad statistics, called U.S. education mediocre. The commission recommended greater emphasis on English, math, social studies, and computer science; longer school days; abolition of seniority and merit pay for teachers. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 26, 1991 – 200,000 marched against the Gulf War in New York City, 200,000 marched in San Francisco and 200,000 in Bonn, Germany. (From the Daily Bleed)

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Coming Influenza Pandemic Part V

In Parts I-IV I discussed the biology, morphology, etiology, genetics and ecology of influenza, the various influenza pandemics that have occurred over the past century and the current socioeconomic factors that increase the likelihood and potential severity of another deadly flu pandemic. In Part V, I further examine these socioeconomic factors and propose some solutions.

Over the past several decades there has been a dramatic decline in public health funding and infrastructure which could exacerbate any pandemic. Vaccine technology has changed little since the 1950s, and is still done in eggs, a slow process that is prone to contamination.3(139) Even with modern technology, however, we have lost much ground in the last 30 years. In 1976, there were thirty-seven flu vaccine manufacturers in the U.S. Today there are less than four.3(p140)  Worldwide, there are only 12 flu vaccine manufacturers and 95% of the stock goes to the wealthiest countries, even though the majority of victims will likely be in the developing world.3(p159)

The war on terror has taken funding that could be used for critical pandemic research and redirected it toward research on rare or non-existent diseases such as smallpox. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said that a flu pandemic was greater threat than a bioterrorist attack.3(p171) 758 researchers, including 2 Nobel laureates, signed a petition claiming that the war on terror, and it’s obsession with exotic pathogens had caused a 27% decline in federal grants for research on immediate threats such as tuberculosis, malaria and influenza, that kill millions of people each year.3(p170)

As a result of HMO streamlining, many hospitals have been closing. Those remaining open have reduced the number of unused beds to as close to 0 as possible, thus leaving no space for new patients in a disaster, terrorist attack or pandemic (but maximizing profits). Between 1990 and 1997, for example, Los Angeles lost 17% of their available hospital beds due to streamlining, while a 2003 survey of hospitals found that 90% of U.S. emergency rooms were “seriously understaffed and overcrowded.”3(p132) Additionally, millions of American remain uninsured or lack paid sick leave, which results in sick people continuing to work where they infect their coworkers.

Lastly, there is a growing anti-vaccination hysteria that threatens us all by discouraging people from getting vaccinated. Yet flu vaccines typically produce strong immune responses in 70-90% of those who have been vaccinated.11 However, there are several caveats to this. Flu vaccines take up to two weeks to stimulate complete immunity.11 For some patients, particularly young children, up to two doses may be required.11 In the time it takes to develop immunity, a person can be infected and become sick. This might lead one to believe that the vaccine made them sick. In reality, influenza made them sick before the vaccine was able to protect them. Therefore, getting vaccinated early, before the height of flu season, is critical to self-protection. Also, if a high enough percentage of the population is vaccinated, there will be very little, if any, of the pathogen circulating in the population, thus further reducing the chances of infection. This is called herd immunity and occurs when 70% of population is immunized.13(p792) 

One reason people fear vaccines is that there have been several notable correlations documented between vaccines and alarming side-effects. However, correlation does not equate to cause, and in virtually every case, the correlations were coincidental; not causative.

In 1976, several people developed Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) after getting vaccinated for swine flu. Many people assumed that the vaccine was responsible. Guillain-Barre is a neurological autoimmune disease that sometimes follows infection with Campylobacter jejuni and influenza.11 It is also very rare, occurring in approximately 1 out of every 100,000 people. The number of people who contracted GBS during the 1970s swine flu vaccination program was not significantly higher than normal. The CDC believes that there may have been 1 additional GBS case per 100,000 during the 1976 vaccination program, yet no scientific evidence has confirmed this.11 The most likely explanation is that the few cases of GBS that did occur, would have occurred anyway.

Even when vaccines are available and desired, poor Americans have less access. Only 39% of African American seniors get vaccinated annually, while 71% of white seniors get vaccinated. This is one reason why seasonal flu is still so deadly in the U.S.3,(p35-6)
From Wikipedia

What Can Be Done?
While another deadly pandemic is likely, there is much we can do now that was not possible in 1918. Vaccine, antiviral and antibacterial technology is far more advanced than it was then. With sufficient funding, we should be able to develop vaccines against Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) strains like H5N1 and make them available to people throughout the world. We also need to provide more funding for antibiotic development to fight the various bacteria that cause deadly secondary infections associated with influenza and governments should stockpile Tamiflu and provide it to people early, when it is effective at stopping influenza.

Governments also need to invest in the rebuilding of public health infrastructures, including an increase in available beds and emergency room capacity. However, they also need to do a better job of educating the public on the benefits and safety of vaccines. Lastly, the rich countries need to provide support for better veterinary surveillance in the developing world and all governments need to be completely open and honest about HPAI outbreaks in their backyards.
Image from Wikipedia
 Tamiflu is only known drug that can fight H5N1 influenza. Rapid stockpiling of Tamiflu (enough for 25% of the population of each country) is essential for averting catastrophic losses of human life. 3(p145) Japan has purchased enough Tamiflu for 20% of their population, while Australia only has enough for 5% of their population, and the U.S. only has enough for only 1% of their population.3(p144) Poor countries have asked permission to produce their own generic versions of Tamiflu, but the U.S. and France vetoed the proposal because it would eat into Roche’s profits.3 

Rebuilding public health infrastructures necessarily involves providing affordable and accessible health care to all and the ability to stay home when ill. Short of this lofty goal, hospitals could be required to maintain sufficient unused beds for disasters or pandemics. Effective public health media campaigns, along the lines of anti-smoking advertisements, could be used to educate the public specifically about the safety and benefits of vaccinations  and how to protect oneself against influenza (e.g., frequent hand washing, staying home when sick, coughing into elbow). Much more funding needs to go into influenza research, as well as the development of new antibacterial drugs.
Asian Bird Cull (from Wikipedia)
 While the U.S. monitors its own flocks for HPAI, many developing countries do not.  Most sub-Saharan countries have closed their flu monitoring systems due to lack of financial resources (only South Africa and Senegal still monitor).3(p24)  Monitoring must be dramatically improved in areas with histories of HPAI outbreaks, such as Vietnam, Thailand and China. When there is any indication of an HPAI outbreak, the WHO must be notified immediately. Samples must be provided to experts for identification and, if it is a HPAI strain, the birds should be culled immediately to prevent the spread.

In the developing world, poverty, corruption and poor infrastructure all hamper such efforts. Developing countries also have valid reasons for not cooperating with the international community, even when they have detected an outbreak. For example, they are less able to deal with the financial and nutritional losses caused by a large chicken cull than developing countries. There are also cultural challenges, such as the value of chickens as pets, future dowries, hedges against famine, or, in the case of prize fighting cocks, as ongoing sources of income.

Lastly, the wealthy nations need to move away from the lifeboat ethic that currently dominates their public health planning and recognize that the front line of any deadly influenza pandemic will be the poorest and most socially isolated communities in the world. It will be impossible to contain influenza in these communities and it will spread throughout the world. Providing free or low-cost vaccines and Tamiflu to developing countries will help protect us all.

  1. AVERT, 2009, AVERTing AIDS website, October 28, 2009:
  2. Bartlett, Donald L.,  and James B. Steele, 2004, “The Health of Nations,” New York Times, Oct 24,
  3. Davis, Mike, 2005, The Monster at Our Door, The New Press, New York
  4. Enserink, Martin, 2004, Science, 306, Dec ember 17, 2004
  5. Kash, John C., Tumpey, Terrence M., Proll, Sean C., Carter, Victoria, Perwitasari, Olivia, Thomas, Matthew J., Basler, Christopher F., Palese, Peter, Taubenberger, Jeffery K., García-Sastre, Adolfo, Swayne, David E., and Katze, Michael G., 2006, “Genomic analysis of increased host immune and cell death responses induced by 1918 influenza virus,” Nature. October 5; 2006, 443(7111): 578–581.
  6. Soares, Christine, 2009, “Pandemic Payoff,” Scientific American, November, 2009, p19-20
  7. Various Authors, 2009, “Influenza:,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 7, 2009,
  8. Various Authors, 2009, “Cytokine Storm,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 7, 2009:
  9. Various Authors, 2009, “Black Death,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 8, 2009:
  10. Various Authors, 2009, “1918 flu pandemic,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 8, 2009:
  11. Various Authors, 2009, “Seasonal Influenza: the Disease,” Centers For Disease Control and Prevention website, accessed November 14, 2009:
  12. Wallace, Amy, 2009, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” Wired, October 19, 2009:
  13. Willey, Joanne M., Sherwood, Linda M., and Woolverton, Christopher J.,  2009, Prescott’s Principles of Microbiology, New York, NY, McGraw Hill
  14. Various Authors, 2009, “Pearl River Delta” from Wikipedia, accessed November 14, 2009:
  15. Various Authors, 2009, “Cortisol,” from Wikipedia,  accessed November 16, 2009:
  16. California Newsreel, 2008, “Unnatural Causes,”  video.  Transcript accessed November 16, 2009:
  17. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2009, “Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for 2009-H1N1 Influenza,” August 7, 2009:

Today in Labor History—January 25

Shays' Rebellion
January 25, 1787 – Daniel Shays and 800 followers marched to Springfield, Massachusetts to seize the Federal arsenal during Shays’ rebellion. They were ultimately defeated by the Massachusetts State militia. The rebellion, which began in August, was an attempt to end the imprisonment of farmers for debts, confiscation of their lands and other attempts by the wealthy to make the poor pay for the Revolutionary War. Many of Shays’ followers were tried, convicted & hung for treason, though Shays fled to Vermont and was eventually pardoned. The U.S. Constitution was written in the wake of Shays’ rebellion and designed in part to prevent other similar uprisings by the common people against slave owners, bankers, landlords and businessmen. (From the Daily Bleed and Wikipedia)
Hazleton, PA Coal Miners, 1905 (Library of Congress)
January 25, 1890 - The United Mine Workers Union was founded in Columbus, Ohio on this date. Their constitution prohibited racial, religious and ethnic discrimination. (From Workday Minnesota)

January 25, 1915The Supreme Court upheld "yellow dog" contracts, which forbid membership in labor unions. Yellow dog contracts remained valid until the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932. ( and the Daily Bleed)

January 25, 1926 — 16,000 textile workers went on strike in Passaic, N.J. (From the Daily Bleed)

January 25, 1930 – New York City police assaulted a Communist rally. (From the Daily Bleed)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Coming Influenza Pandemic Part IV

In Parts I, II and III I discussed the biology, morphology, etiology and genetics of influenza and the various influenza pandemics that have occurred over the past century. In Part IV I will discuss the social, political and economic factors that influence influenza ecology and increase the likelihood and potential severity of another deadly flu pandemic.

So far we have dodged many bullets. There are several highly pathogenic avian strains circulating among poultry and other fowl that cannot yet easily infect humans. The number of these HPAI strains appears to be growing. There are several socioeconomic factors that contribute not only to the proliferation of HPAI strains, but also create opportunities for them to mix and reassort with human and porcine strains. Further, some of these socioeconomic factors could make a modern pandemic just as devastating, or worse, than 1918. These factors include the growth of mega farms, in which tens of thousands of animals are crammed into relatively small areas; the growth of mega slums, such as those found in Mumbai and Nairobi, where hundreds of thousands of people live closely together in squalor; the industrialization of Southern China, where mega farms and mega slums collide with migrating water fowl that harbor novel influenza strains; and the decline in public health and veterinary surveillance systems which can monitor and quash outbreaks before they turn into pandemics.

Mega farms are an enormous threat to public safety. They pollute the air, land and water with animal wastes and they use up an inordinate amount of water. However, the most dangerous aspect of mega farms may be the fact that so many animals are cramped together that they easily spread diseases to each other, forcing farmers to overuse antibiotics and other drugs to avert infections and massive die-offs. This creates an ideal environment for genetic reassortment and antigenic shift of influenza viruses.

20-30 years ago, mega farms were relatively rare in the U.S. and virtually nonexistent in the third world. Ranches typically had a few hundred or, if really large, a few thousand head of cow or swine. The percentage of U.S. hogs raised on factory farms with more than 5000 pigs has increased from 18% of all U.S. swine farms in 1993 to 53% in 2003.3(p90) Western Arkansas and Northern Georgia, alone, slaughter over one billion chickens per year.3(p83) One swine farm in Utah produces more raw sewage than the entire city of Los Angeles.3(p84) The U.S. giant of poultry farming, Tyson, slaughters more than two billion chickens per year in the U.S.3(p83) Mega farms are also starting to grow throughout the world. Charoen Pokphond (CP), the Asian analog of Tyson, has factory farms all over Thailand & China. CP won the very first permit to operate a private enterprise in China, during the economic reorganization initiated by Deng Xiaoping.3(p103-105) In 2003, during the height of a Thai H5N1 outbreak, rather than cull their flocks, CP increased their rate of slaughter and sent diseased chicken meat abroad3(p103-105) 
Wadala Slum, Mumbay (from Wikipedia)
 During the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the poor and hungry were the hardest hit, both in morbidity and mortality.3(p28) Germany had a high mortality due to war famine.3(p28) Iran was recovering from several years of cholera, typhus, drought and famine, which contributed to the highest relative influenza mortality (up to 22%) in the world.3(p29) India had a high mortality rate due to famine and concurrent infection with malaria.3(p28) The pandemic hit India during harvest season, exacerbating the famine. Today, the problem of poverty and famine may be worse. In 1918, there were only 25 million slum dwellers worldwide. In 2005, there were over 1 billion, and this is expected to double by 2020.3(p152) As you can see from the table below, some of the world’s densest slums surpass the international average by almost two orders of magnitude.

Poverty affects health and immunity in several ways. Malnutrition deprives the body of nutrients and calories necessary for homeostasis. Poverty creates uncertainty about survival, which leads to stress and the overproduction of cortisol, which can lead to diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and impaired immune response.16 Poverty also forces people to live in overcrowded conditions that facilitate the spread of germs. In many slums, there may be as many as 1000 people sharing a single latrine.3 Slum dwellers are less likely to have adequate (if any) clean drinking water. They have less access to doctors and may be less inclined to take stay home to recuperate from influenza for fear of losing income or their jobs. People who are already ill are much more likely to contract and die from influenza. This is even more true for those with compromised immune systems. In Africa, 27 million people are infected with HIV. Combined with poverty, malnutrition, and poor influenza surveillance and vaccination, Africa will likely be hit hard by an influenza pandemic.3(p160)

Deforestation, over-farming and overfishing have forced many subsistence workers to flee the countryside for the cities throughout the developing world. These practices also deprive people of protein in their diets and encourage the consumption of exotic meats such as civets, in China, the hypothesized source of the SARS virus, or monkeys, in Africa, the likely origin of HIV.3(p58) Deforestation, in particular, brings people in closer contact with wild animals that may harbor novel diseases, such as Ebola. In China, deforestation, over-farming, massive urbanization have led to increased contact with flu carriers, such as wild water fowl in the Pearl River Delta and increased genetic mixing between these vectors of influenza and domesticated pigs, chickens and ducks.3
Image from Wikipedia
Influenza A is endemic in ducks and geese from Siberia and Canada. As many as one-third of young ducks and geese harbor the virus.3(p9) It infects their gut and is shed in their feces into the same water they drink and from which they feed. It is usually harmless to them, but it is spread rapidly, permitting considerable exchange of genetic material.3(p9) One study in Alberta found 27 different subtypes in one community of ducks.3(p9) During their migrations to the Gulf Coast and southern China, they may continue to shed influenza for as long as one month.3(p9)

Downtown Guangzhou with Slum in Foreground (Image from Wikipedia)
Siberian and Canadian ducks and geese, which form the natural reservoir for influenza and serve as vectors that transmit the disease to swine and people, fly south for the winter, primarily to the Pearl River Delta, in Southern China. The Pearl River Delta is one of the largest conglomerations of humans on Earth. It is home to several large cities including Guangzhou (10 million), Shenzhen (8.4 million), Hong Kong (7 million), Dongguan (6.9 million), Foshan (6.7 million), and three other cities of over 1 million people.14 Macau is also located in the delta and has a population density of more than 18,000 people per square kilometer.14 Much of the region resembles Europe during industrial revolution due to rapid industrialization. There are huge, overcrowded slums, rampant pollution, poverty, all in close proximity to dense poultry and swine farms. The percentage delta residents living in urban settings grew from 32% in 1978 to 70% by 2002.3(p58-9) Air pollution in the delta is 24 times higher than rest of China and 50% of the residents cannot afford medical attention when ill.3(p58-9) 
Wet Market (image from Wikipedia)
While poverty is high, those who can afford meat are buying it more than ever before.. This has led to the proliferation of wet markets (where live animals are sold from cages), that serve as swap meets for influenza genes. Poultry consumption in China more than doubled since 1980. There are 700 million chickens in Guangdong province and many of the chicken cages sit atop pig pens, allowing the pigs to eat infected chicken feces. 2003 study of the Guangdong area found 500 different flu strains in wild & domestic birds (53 subtypes of H9, alone).3(p62-63) 

Stay tuned for Part V, tomorrow, when I will discuss how crumbling public health infrastructures also increase the chances of another deadly pandemic and the consequences. 

  1. AVERT, 2009, AVERTing AIDS website, October 28, 2009:
  2. Bartlett, Donald L.,  and James B. Steele, 2004, “The Health of Nations,” New York Times, Oct 24,
  3. Davis, Mike, 2005, The Monster at Our Door, The New Press, New York
  4. Enserink, Martin, 2004, Science, 306, Dec ember 17, 2004
  5. Kash, John C., Tumpey, Terrence M., Proll, Sean C., Carter, Victoria, Perwitasari, Olivia, Thomas, Matthew J., Basler, Christopher F., Palese, Peter, Taubenberger, Jeffery K., García-Sastre, Adolfo, Swayne, David E., and Katze, Michael G., 2006, “Genomic analysis of increased host immune and cell death responses induced by 1918 influenza virus,” Nature. October 5; 2006, 443(7111): 578–581.
  6. Soares, Christine, 2009, “Pandemic Payoff,” Scientific American, November, 2009, p19-20
  7. Various Authors, 2009, “Influenza:,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 7, 2009,
  8. Various Authors, 2009, “Cytokine Storm,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 7, 2009:
  9. Various Authors, 2009, “Black Death,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 8, 2009:
  10. Various Authors, 2009, “1918 flu pandemic,” from Wikipedia, accessed November 8, 2009:
  11. Various Authors, 2009, “Seasonal Influenza: the Disease,” Centers For Disease Control and Prevention website, accessed November 14, 2009:
  12. Wallace, Amy, 2009, “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All,” Wired, October 19, 2009:
  13. Willey, Joanne M., Sherwood, Linda M., and Woolverton, Christopher J.,  2009, Prescott’s Principles of Microbiology, New York, NY, McGraw Hill
  14. Various Authors, 2009, “Pearl River Delta” from Wikipedia, accessed November 14, 2009:
  15. Various Authors, 2009, “Cortisol,” from Wikipedia,  accessed November 16, 2009:
  16. California Newsreel, 2008, “Unnatural Causes,”  video.  Transcript accessed November 16, 2009:
  17. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2009, “Report to the President on U.S. Preparations for 2009-H1N1 Influenza,” August 7, 2009: