Month: April 2019

Trump, once vaccine skeptic, changes his tune amid measles outbreaks…

As measles outbreaks rage in a number of states across the country, President Trump urged families to vaccinate their children on Friday.

“They have to get the shots. The vaccinations are so important,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House. “This is really going around now. They have to get their shots.”

The endorsement of vaccination from a previously vaccine-questioning president comes as a bit of a surprise. Before winning the presidency, Trump several times alleged there was a link between the number of vaccines children get in early infancy and the development of autism.


But since his inauguration, Trump has made no public comment about vaccines at all.

With the measles count in the United States hitting its highest point since 1994 this week, public health observers have questioned why this president, unlike predecessors going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, hasn’t been urging parents to vaccinate their children.

Some raised concerns that Trump’s track record on vaccination would undercut the credibility of any pro-vaccination message he delivered. But others noted that his base voters might be swayed if he endorsed vaccines.

“To me, this is one of the best things President Trump has done,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, who called out Trump publicly on his silence in a recent op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Zimmerman called the move “politically brave,” noting there is an anti-vaccine faction within his base.

“I hope my fellow liberals will take a break from lambasting the President and congratulate him. Whatever his other wrongs, he was dead right about this,” Zimmerman said.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that reported measles cases in the country had hit 695, the highest number since before measles was declared in eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Cases have been reported from 22 states.

The president’s comments were welcomed by Dr. Matt Zahn, the chair of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s public health committee, who suggested they could be helpful in winning over parents who worry about the safety of vaccines.

“It’s just so important that there’s clarity here,” said Zahn, who is medical director for the communicable diseases program for Orange County Public Health in California. “You are safer and the public will be healthier when our kids are getting immunized and when our community immunization rates go up.”

Orange County is home to Disneyland, the epicenter of a big measles outbreak in 2015. Working to contain it was an enormous amount of work, Zahn said.

He said there is a fear among public health officials that the ground is now shifting. Where in recent years U.S. measles numbers have been driven by one or two large outbreaks — among Amish communities in Ohio in 2014, Disneyland in 2015 — this year there are multiple large outbreaks around the country.

“It feels different,” Zahn said, noting that even counties like his that aren’t currently battling a measles outbreak are finding themselves having to chase down contacts who were exposed elsewhere. “There is an awful lot of spillover to other communities and to other counties.”

“I think for all of public health, we’re all a little apprehensive that we’re reaching a new normal wherein every community deals with these events or cases or outbreaks on a semi-regular basis,” he said.

And with a growing number of pockets across the country where vaccination rates are low, the U.S. is likely to find itself having to fight ever larger outbreaks when unvaccinated Americans get infected abroad and return home sick, or when infected tourists bring the virus to the country.

“We certainly have … communities of significant size in this country where immunization rates are quite low,” Zahn said. “So the ground in the United States is more fertile for these outbreaks than it has been in decades past.”

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Can virtual reality boost positive feelings in depressed patients?

Michelle Craske is asking patients to dive into coral reefs, ride on bullet trains rushing past pine trees, and cheer on soccer teams from the stands — at least virtually — in a bid to tackle a symptom long sidelined in depression treatment.

The University of California, Los Angeles, psychiatry researcher and her colleagues are testing whether virtual reality can curb anhedonia, a symptom of depression and other serious mental health conditions that’s marked by a lack of interest or ability to feel pleasure. They’re putting patients into pleasant scenarios — like a stroll through a sun-soaked forest while piano music plays — and coaching them to pay close attention to the positive parts.The idea is to help patients learn to plan positive activities, take part in them, and soak up the good feelings in the process.

It’s an unconventional strategy — not just for its use of virtual reality, but also for how it approaches a patient’s symptoms. Treatments for depression and other serious mental health conditions primarily target negative symptoms, like hopelessness, sadness, and anxiety — but they often don’t help with the lack of positive feelings that some patients experience.


“Most treatments, up until now, have done an OK job at reducing negative [symptoms of depression], but a very poor job at helping patients become more positive,” said Craske.

There aren’t data yet to determine whether virtual reality treatment can make a meaningful difference in anhedonia. But the technology is increasingly popular in mental health care. Other studies have suggested virtual reality can be useful in easing certain phobias, helping people with psychotic disorders experience less paranoia and anxiety in public settings, and reducing social anxiety.

“It goes to the heart of the very best of psychological therapy — going into environments that cause difficulties and learning different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving,” said Dr. Daniel Freeman, a University of Oxford psychologist who is studying whether it’s possible to use virtual reality to automate therapy for certain conditions, such as a fear of heights. Researchers elsewhere are using virtual reality for everything from treating PTSD in people who’ve experienced sexual trauma to equipping service members with coping skills they’ll need in combat zones.

“Mental health and the environment are inseparable,” said Freeman. “The brilliant thing about virtual reality is that you can provide simulations in the environment and have people repeatedly go into them,” he added.

Anhedonia has proven to be a particularly stubborn symptom to treat. Even when a patient’s other symptoms improve with treatment, anhedonia often doesn’t.

“It’s only one part of many symptoms, but it’s a symptom that’s especially impairing,” said Dr. Erika Forbes, a University of Pittsburgh psychologist who studies anhedonia. Research suggests people who have anhedonia are more likely to have longer, more difficult to treat cases of depression.

Scientists don’t know the exact biology behind the symptom, but believe that it’s tied to problems with the brain’s reward circuitry. There aren’t treatments that specifically target the symptom, but a handful of research groups are working on possible interventions.

The foundation of Craske’s approach is an intervention developed by Craske and her colleagues known as positive affect therapy. The gist: put a person into a situation that might be pleasurable, talk to them about it in painstaking detail, repeat. That might look like going to a museum, taking in the art, and then talking with a therapist about everything from the vivid shades of red in a painting to the feeling of their shoulders relaxing while standing in front of it.

In a paper accepted earlier this year by the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Craske’s team found the treatment was more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy at boosting people’s positive feelings. Participants who went through the positive affect treatment also reported lower levels of depression, anxiety, and other negative symptoms than their peers in the standard treatment group.

But for some patients with severe anhedonia, depression, or other limitations, getting out into settings like museums or social gatherings isn’t a realistic first step. That’s where the virtual reality comes in.

“You bring the world to them,” Forbes said.

Craske is running two virtual reality studies on anhedonia. The first was a small pilot study of six patients with severe cases. The patients ventured into new environments using virtual reality, going through weeks of therapy designed to drill into positive emotions. The researchers also used functional MRI scans of the brain to see if the practice produced any changes in the brain, though they haven’t analyzed those scans yet.

Now, the researchers are running a larger study with dozens of patients with anxiety and depression who have anhedonia. In a bid to make virtual reality treatment easier and more accessible, patients are equipped with VR gear that they can use with their smartphones at home. Over 13 virtual reality sessions, patients are immersed in a series of scenarios, such as gliding through the canals in Venice. They’re encouraged to observe their thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions, then jot those down in an online diary after each session. They’ll also hear a guided mindfulness recording after each session that’s intended to reinforce the idea that certain activities can be rewarding.

After each session, participants rate their mood on a scale. Their results will be compared to a control group of peers who aren’t receiving the virtual reality treatment, but will be offered the option to do it once the trial wraps up.

“It sounds like a creative and promising way to address [anhedonia],” Forbes said.

If the studies support the virtual reality treatment, there are still kinks to be worked out in the system, including giving the virtual reality scenarios an upgrade. Craske and her colleagues are planning to work with a virtual reality company to design an interactive program that adapts to a patient’s responses. If, for example, a patient smiles at a VR character who waves and says hello, that character might walk over and strike up a friendly conversation.

“That’s where I want to go with this — make it much more interactive,” she said.

Moving virtual reality into mental health care will take a collaborative effort. Freeman said that having a well-designed program and good hardware are critical for using VR in health care — and key to making sure it doesn’t cause any unpleasant side effects that some people experience with VR, like nausea.

As the technology is refined and studied, experts say it could become a useful tool in treating psychiatric conditions and other health issues. But researchers still need to pinpoint which conditions and patient groups might benefit from virtual reality, and which won’t.

“Mental health is complex. There is no one solution,” said Freeman. “There won’t be one tech solution either.”

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James Murdoch Denies Plans for Liberal News Site…

A representative for James Murdoch denied a report that he is planning to invest $1 billion in news outlets, including one that could lean left.

On Tuesday, The Financial Times reported that Rupert Murdoch’s more liberal-leaning son was looking to set himself apart from his father’s conservative media empire by investing in a “portfolio of media companies that could include a liberal-leaning news outlet.”

But a Murdoch representative told TheWrap that Murdoch “is not currently looking at any investments in news properties.”

The spokesperson also said that the FT did not speak with Murdoch or “anyone with insights into Mr. Murdoch’s current plans.” A rep for the FT did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rupert Murdoch and sons, James and Lachlan, each hauled in around $50 million in fiscal 2018, representing huge pay bumps from the prior year.

The Wall Street Journal reported that James, who served as chief executive of 21st Century Fox, will personally take in another $2.2 billion from the $71.3 billion sale of the company’s major entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co.

James, 46, has been known as one of the more liberal of Rupert Murdoch’s six children. Last month, he donated $2,800 to Democrat Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, further distancing himself from his father’s empire.

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COP: Short-circuit likely caused Notre Dame fire…

PARIS (AP) — Paris police investigators think an electrical short-circuit most likely caused the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, a police official said Thursday, as France paid a daylong tribute to the firefighters who saved the world-renowned landmark.

A judicial police official told The Associated Press that investigators made an initial assessment of the cathedral Wednesday but don’t have a green light to search Notre Dame’s charred interior because of ongoing safety hazards.

The cathedral’s fragile walls were being shored up with wooden planks, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak by name about an ongoing investigation.

Investigators so far believe the fire was accidental, and are questioning both cathedral staff and workers who were carrying out renovations. Some 40 people had been questioned by Thursday, according to the Paris prosecutor’s office.

The police official would not comment on an unsourced report in Le Parisian newspaper that investigators are looking at whether the fire could have been linked to a computer glitch or the temporary elevators used in the renovation work, among other things. The prosecutor’s office said only that “all leads must be explored.”

Since the cathedral will be closed to the public for years, the rector of the Catholic parish that worships there has proposed building a temporary structure on the plaza in front of the Gothic-era landmark, and City Hall gave its approval Thursday “subject to technical restraints.”

A Paris fire official said the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral would have fallen if firefighters hadn't deployed massive equipment and acted swiftly to fight the fire racing across the monument. (April 17)

“The rector has no cathedral for the moment. …. But I’m going to try to invent something,” Bishop Patrick Chauvet said.

A crypt containing vestiges dating from antiquity is located under the vast esplanade.

President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants Notre Dame to be restored in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, which Paris is hosting. Restoration specialists have questioned the ambitious timeline, with some saying it could take three times that long to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.

Earlier Thursday, Macron held a ceremony at the Elysee Palace to thank the hundreds of firefighters who battled the fast-moving fire at Notre Dame for nine hours starting Monday evening, preventing the structure’s destruction and rescuing many of the important relics held inside.

“We’ve seen before our eyes the right things perfectly organized in a few moments, with responsibility, courage, solidarity and a meticulous organization”, Macron said. “The worst has been avoided.”

The cathedral’s lead roof and its soaring spire were destroyed, but Notre Dame’s iconic bell towers, rose windows, organ and precious artworks were saved.

Macron said the firefighters will receive an Honor Medal for their courage and devotion.

Paris City Hall also held a ceremony in the firefighters’ honor Thursday afternoon, with a Bach violin concert, two giant banners strung from the monumental city headquarters and readings from Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Remarkably, no one was killed in the blaze that broke out as the cathedral was in the initial stages of a lengthy restoration.

A large swath of the island in the Seine River where Notre Dame is located was officially closed Thursday by police, who cited “important risks” of collapse and falling objects. The area had been unofficially blocked off since the fire.

Meanwhile, workers using a crane removed some statues to lessen the weight on the cathedral’s fragile gables, or support walls, to keep them from collapsing since they were no longer supported by the roof and its network of centuries-old timbers that were consumed by the inferno.

They also secured the support structure above one of Notre Dame’s rose windows with wooden planks.

Among the firefighters honored Thursday was Paris fire brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who told the Le Parisian daily he was able to save the cathedral’s consecrated hosts. The paper said he climbed on altars to remove large paintings, but that he was especially proud “to have removed Jesus” from the Cathedral — a reference to the Catholic belief that consecrated hosts are the body of Christ.

An earlier report credited Fournier with helping salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus at his crucifixion, but Fournier told France Info Thursday he arrived after rescuers had already broken the relic’s protective covering and an official who had the secret code needed to unlock it finished the job. He praised the action that preserved “this extraordinary relic, this patrimony of humanity.”

Among others honored was Myriam Chudzinski, one of the first firefighters to reach the roof as the blaze raged. Loaded with gear, they climbed hundreds of steps up the cathedral’s narrow spiral staircase to the top of one of the two towers.

“We knew that the roof was burning, but we didn’t really know the intensity,” she told reporters. “It was from upstairs that you understood that it was really dramatic. It was very hot and we had to retreat, retreat. It was spreading quickly.”

Benedicte Contamin, who came to view the damaged cathedral from afar Thursday, said she’s sad but grateful it’s still there.

“It’s a chance for France to bounce back, a chance to realize what unites us, because we have been too much divided over the past years,” she said.


Associated Press writers Nicolas Vaux-Montagny and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.


Read and watch all AP coverage of the Notre Dame fire at

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe won’t run for president in 2020, meaning establishment, centrist Democrats will have one less option in a nominating free-for-all that so far has highlighted the party’s leftward shift.

McAuliffe said Wednesday night that instead of joining a crowded Democratic field vying to challenge President Donald Trump, he will concentrate his efforts on helping Democrats win this year in Virginia — with the possibility that he runs for governor or president in the future.

“Where can you help people the most and change people’s lives?” McAuliffe said on CNN, arguing that he could “beat Trump like a rented mule” but doesn’t “want anyone in Virginia to think I’ve abandoned them.”

“I’m staying home to do what I need to do to help Virginians,” he added.

McAuliffe’s decision comes as former Vice President Joe Biden considers whether to enter the 2020 Democratic field. McAuliffe is widely viewed as part of the party’s mainstream, occupying much of the same political space as Biden.

McAuliffe said “most” of the current Democratic candidates could defeat Trump, though Biden was the only potential contender he called out by name. “I love Joe Biden,” he said.

The former governor’s decision also follows a series of scandals that weakened Democrats in Virginia during a key election year, when partisan control of the state legislature is up for grabs.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring both admitted in February to having worn blackface as young men, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denies. Some top Democratic state lawmakers have urged McAuliffe to focus on raising money for Democrats this year and then run for governor in 2021. Virginia bars governors from serving consecutive terms, but McAuliffe could run again after serving from 2014-18.

He demurred on CNN when pressed about whether he’d run for governor in 2021, saying he’s committed to Virginia Democrats first and foremost to help this year and in federal elections next year.

One state lawmaker, Democratic Sen. Dick Saslaw, said that he’s been urging McAuliffe to run for governor.

“He didn’t rule it out,” Saslaw told The Associated Press before McAuliffe’s CNN appearance.

McAuliffe, once best known as a top Democratic money man and close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s, reinvented his image during a largely successful four-year term as governor that saw him tirelessly market the state, make major transportation deals and restore more voting rights than any other governor in the country.

In a presidential race, McAuliffe’s record as a business-friendly centrist — he proposed a corporate tax cut and backed a massive new natural gas pipeline that environmentalists detest — would have been a liability with more progressive primary voters.

Yet McAuliffe had made clear to friends and associates that he believed he’d make a good candidate and an excellent president. He’s been open about his belief that Democrats should not stray too far to the left, particularly on health care and other economic issues. He sees himself as a politician in line with the party’s positions on social issues while representing a mainstream liberalism that could appeal to more moderate voters.

According to aides, McAuliffe had spent the last several weeks meeting with policy advisers talking about how to make concrete economic and health care proposals that could appeal across the political spectrum but that would stop short of Sanders’ pitch for single-payer health insurance. Among those he met with was Chris Jennings, a top health care policy adviser in President Barack Obama’s White House when the Affordable Care Act was passed and implemented.

Part of McAuliffe’s pitch to powerbrokers in early voting states was his ability to make Democratic inroads in Virginia, which has become reliably Democratic in recent elections. In the 2017 elections, the last year of McAuliffe’s four-year tenure as governor, 15 House of Delegates seats shifted from Republican to Democratic control, reducing the GOP’s majority to two seats.

“I took a red state and made it blue,” the former Democratic National Committee chairman said last month during a swing through South Carolina. “We had the biggest pickups in 140 years under my four years as governor, and if we did it there, we can do it here in South Carolina.”

McAuliffe stepped into the national spotlight as governor as a leading voice on certain social issues, winning kudos for undoing a vestige of the state’s Jim Crow era and restoring voting and other civil rights to felons who have completed their sentences. McAuliffe’s blunt criticism of the white nationalists who sparked a deadly rally in Charlottesville last summer also drew a sharp contrast with Trump’s shaky response.

Trump gave $25,000 to McAuliffe’s 2009 gubernatorial bid, and the two were once acquaintances. But McAuliffe has been unsparing in his criticism of the president in the last year or so, telling a national television audience he’d knock Trump to the floor if the president ever tried to intimidate him.

Another factor in McAuliffe’s decision is the dissipating shadow of the Clintons in Democratic presidential politics. McAuliffe has been friends with the couple for more than 30 years and served as DNC chairman during part of Bill Clinton’s tenure. McAuliffe has been unapologetic about his ties with the Clintons and his years as a party money man for them and other candidates, saying he has always worked within the existing campaign finance rules to elect Democrats up and down the ballot, even as he acknowledges that big money — particularly from corporations and super PACs — has become anathema to many in the Democratic base.


Barrow reported from Atlanta.

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American flags on police cars sparks backlash in Laguna Beach…

“There was like a little panic going on, and I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ ” Prelitz said. The hubbub, he discovered, was over a cluster of police cars that had arrived at the scene. “When one of them’s there, it works. But all of a sudden, I saw, wow, when there are three, maybe four of them together, folks thought it was a SWAT team, federal agents. So it had a very striking, strong impact, so much so that I think there might be some unintended consequences.”

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Wildlife meets wellness via lemur yoga…

Here’s a story we probably couldn’t publish yesterday morning – as it looks hook, line and sinker like an April Fool’s joke.

But it’s not.

Next time you take a trip down to the Lake District , you can take a very unusual yoga class. It’s like a normal yoga class, except a troop of lemurs take part alongside humans.

The ‘lemoga’ classes are available at luxury hotel Armathwaite Hall, near Keswick,  which neighbours the Lake District Wildlife Park, Bassenthwaite Lake and Skiddaw.

Armathwaite Hall hotel in Keswick, Cumbria holds Lemoga classes with the lemurs from Lake District Wild Life Park
Armathwaite Hall hotel in Keswick, Cumbria holds Lemoga classes with the lemurs from Lake District Wild Life Park

The classes form part of the hotel’s ‘meet the wildlife’ wellness experiences.

Designed for people of all abilities, the sessions merge nature with mindfullness.

So why lemurs?

Apparently, lemurs are very compatible yoga partners, due to their friendly and outgoing nature.

The class aims to bust stress, cut blood pressure and make yogis laugh-  as the lemurs are not shy.

They’re used to humans too, as they live in the neighbouring Wildlife Park.

Would you try ‘lemoga’ on your next trip to the Lake District

Carolyn Graves, owner of Armathwaite Hall, says: “As a wellness destination, we’re used to providing our guests with outdoor experiences which help relieve the symptoms of city living such as stress, sleep and pollution.   Lemoga offers our guests the chance to feel at one with nature, at the same time joining in with the lemurs’ play time.”


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