Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sarah Got the Mumps!

When I think of mumps, I think of kids a generation or so ago, lying in bed with puffy cheeks and those old-fashioned, mushroom-shaped ice packs plopped on their heads. I certainly never pictured myself as one of those kids.

After all, I made it through childhood with nothing more serious than a case of the chicken pox. But just a few weeks ago, I went through a bout with the mumps. It began with the standard cold symptoms of a sore throat, runny nose, and headache. But soon my cheeks began to swell and my head started to feel like a bowling ball. I still never thought to self-diagnose myself with the mumps. It wasn’t until my doctor took one quick glance at me and pronounced “mumps!” that I even considered it.

The doctor was initially as perplexed as I was. I was vaccinated against mumps as a baby, and in all likelihood I should never have gotten the disease as an adult. I even had the MMR booster as a freshman college student. However, in Missouri this year, at least 13 other people have reported cases of mumps to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. That represents an 8.3% increase for this year, compared to the average number of cases over the last five years. Those reported cases were spread around the state, with incidences reported in Cass, Franklin, Greene, Phelps, and Polk counties and in cities like Independence, Kansas City, and St. Louis. And the numbers are likely higher. Most cases never get officially reported. And after a quick Google search, I learned that a case of the mumps isn’t nearly as odd or remote as it sounds.

Last April, mumps spread virally through a close-knit community of Orthodox Jews in New York City. More than 2500 people got sick in New York and New Jersey. In August of this year, mumps spread through Dordt College in northwest Iowa. And in late November of this year in London, the Middlesex-London Health Unit issued an alert for mumps.

The last major mumps outbreak in the U.S. happened in 2006 when more than 6,500 people got sick. And once there’s one case of mumps, outbreaks are relatively easy to achieve. The disease spreads quickly through close-knit groups of people, or in places where people live in close proximity to each other. College campuses are prime breeding grounds. All it takes is a few drops of saliva or mucus from an infected person, and you’re likely to pick it up.

So why do we have such short memories when it comes to mumps? I know I must have read about recent outbreaks in the news. I must have thought, 'Hmmm, it will never happen to me.' And just like me, in many of these cases, those affected had been vaccinated against the disease as children, and even gotten boosters as adults. But the shots are not meant to be 100% effective. The Centers for Disease Control reports that people who have received two doses of the MMR vaccine are about 9 times less likely to get mumps than unvaccinated people who have the same exposure to mumps virus. And because of recent debates over vaccines, and a push from some parents not to vaccinate their children, cases of mumps could be on the rise again.

Mumps is one of those diseases that has a very low fatality rate, and rarely produces serious side effects, but there’s no quick cure for it. Your salivary glands will swell, and your head will hurt. Doctors will simply say go to bed, sleep a lot, drink lots of fluids, and wait it out. And that’s just what I did. Two weeks later, I’m much better and I no longer resemble a chipmunk. Though I still rub my cheeks from time to time and I’ve been watching my colleagues with a keen eye to see if their cheeks start to look a little fuller than usual.

Sarah Ashworth

KBIA Assistant News Director

CDC’s FAQ on mumps outbreaks

Endangered Pallid Sturgeon

Over the past week I’ve been working on a story about a study at the USGS Columbia Environmental Research Center. Researchers there, in conjunction with those at the University of Missouri and the Iowa State University, are developing models to help predict how the Missouri River sturgeon population may respond to climate change.

I started out by talking to USGS research ecologist Mark Wildhaber. He’s been studying fish – in one way or another – nearly his entire life. As a kid, he turned his parent’s basement into an aquarium shop, breeding and selling species he deemed interesting. His love of marine life was apparent, so I knew I’d get a good answer when I asked him to describe a sturgeon. You know, because radio listeners can’t actually see one.

After a few laughs – he said he’d never been asked that question before – Wildhaber came to this conclusion: A sturgeon is in fact kind of like a dog. A while ago researchers decided to use endoscopes and ultrasounds to determine if a sturgeon is male or female. That fact is not outwardly apparent for sturgeon, and researchers used to cut them open. But now when they use these methods on the fish, Wildhaber says the sturgeon basically just roll over, no struggling or squirming as you might expect.

“For people to look at them and think that they might be something mean and dangerous, they’re kind of like having a golden retriever,” Wildhaber said. “If anybody knows what a golden retriever’s like, it’s basically like that. They just sit there and do their thing, let you handle them how you feel, and go back to their business.”

Wildhaber says the dog-like sturgeon have actually inhabited the Earth since dinosaurs roamed around. But now their numbers are dwindling. Back in the late 1800s fishermen harvested the pallid sturgeon for caviar.

And today the sturgeon population is still feeling those effects. The sturgeon’s life cycle is a lot like our own: They live to be about 60 to 80 years old. That means only five or six generations are alive at one time. And that’s one reason Wildhaber says this study is important. Subtle changes won’t show up in a few years time with the sturgeon populations. He says the models will hopefully help predict what will happen many decades down the road.

“It’s very important to understand it,” Wildhaber said, “because obviously if you don’t understand it until after it’s happened, it’s obviously too late.”

--Courtney Flatt
Producer for Business Beat, Reporter and Web Producer

Holiday Magic: A Community Thanksgiving in Centrailia

This year, I snuck in a little work over the Thanksgiving holiday. Usually I’m pretty brutal about dividing the business and personal life. But when you are a public-radio reporter, work merges into your life in positive ways, for you and your family.

This Thanksgiving, my husband, two daughters and I did the usual – we joined with cousins, siblings, and grandparents at our family farm outside of Centralia. There were potatoes to chop, a turkey to baste and a large table to put together. All the dinner prep happens between caring for two toddlers, and my sister and I sneaking off in between it all for walks in the pasture when we can. I also take every possible opportunity (and it’s rare as you can imagine) to sit in front of the fire with Bella, the black Labrador, and read.

This year there was another element to add to the mix: In the back of my mind I was hoping to skip out and briefly visit a free community dinner, to capture the sounds of Thanksgiving as celebrated by Centralia. Around mid-day on Thanksgiving, with the young kids down for a nap, my sister and her husband having just returned from a pasture hike, and my two daughters off with their grandfather for a visit to the Amish farms, I found my chance to escape.

Off I went to Centralia’s Friendship Christian Church free community dinner. Getting in my rusty minivan with a Marantz and my iPhone in tow felt good. Setting off for a good story is one of my favorite states of being. It may be officially work, but it felt like a holiday. Grabbing my equipment out of the van and heading in, I had the usual doubts familiar to any radio journalist, doubts that almost never materialize into problems: Are people going to shy away from my microphone, or resent the media intrusion on a holiday event? As all journalists know, it’s almost always the opposite that happens. The microphone and the camera allow a fun way for people to open up to each other and to you. And of course in this Thanksgiving holiday setting that was absolutely the case.

The dinner was taking place inside the church annex building right next door to Prenger’s Grocery in Centralia’s main street area. Inside, music played, families and friends sat at tables together, kids roamed and ran, and a big portion of the room was taken up by an assembly line of turkey and all the trimmings being dished out by a revolving crew of happy volunteers.

A flurry of greetings, hugs, and welcomes were thrown out to anyone and everyone who walked in the door. Volunteers had arrived early that morning to chop and mash potatoes and get meals ready to be served at the dinner site, as well as bundling up meals to take out to those the house-bound.

Tracey and Ronny Roberts headed up the front of the meal line with platters of turkey, Tracey occasionally running back to the kitchen for reinforcements or to Prenger's to grab more supplies. The Robertses told me they like big, noisy Thanksgiving dinners – and with extended family out of town, they decided a free community dinner would not only help others but provide some loving noisy holiday magic for their own family. One mom served trimmings – stuffing and vegetables – at the end of the line with her two daughters. One of whom was a shy middle-schooler with a sweet smile and a definite mic-aversion, the other a teenager having the time of her life.

In fact, one of the best things about the gathering was seeing the different ages in one room, without technology, sitting around tables and taking turns alternately eating and serving together. Gara Richardson told me one of the best things about the day was what it does for her kids. Her middle-school-aged son had greeted me at the door asking if I wanted dessert. He spent the entire time I was there on his feet, rotating with desserts and dispensing utensils.

Richardson’s other son, teen-ager Turner Smith, came in breathless from a delivery to local apartment buildings, excited that the woman they delivered to had reciprocated with a box full of food to donate. He said delivering meals on a holiday to those who had no one to celebrate with was a great way to spend his time – better than sitting at home doing nothing, he said.

I had to agree. At home, I had left a roaring fire, a really good book and a loving noisy family of my own, all of which were there for me - loud and loving - when I returned. Seeing a giving community gathered in downtown Centralia made me appreciate the family and home I returned to even more. Next year, I’ve vowed to make community volunteering a part of our holiday. I hope we’ll be there, or somewhere similar, volunteering, giving, connecting. And creating the true magic of the holidays.

To hear an audio postcard of Centrailia's community dinner, click here.

Janet Saidi
KBIA News Director

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Devil in the Detail: The Scope of the Cole County Surtax Issue

Because Blair Oaks School District is unwilling to go along with Cole County's surtax plan, at least three government entities appear headed for a court over a surtax that only amounts to a sliver of the county's income. We covered it on Talking Politics, but I want to go into a little more detail here. I think it's important to understand that, despite how small the surtax is, a lawsuit could have big implications.

How small is it? Of the roughly $23.8 million in tax revenues that flowed into Cole County's coffers in 2009, only $2 million came from the disputed surtax on commercial real estate. That means the county's headed for a lawsuit over a tax that makes up 8.4 percent of its revenue.

Here's the problem: Since 1987, the county has been calculating how to divvy up the revenues from this surtax incorrectly. Some areas — like Jefferson City, the Cole County library, and Cole County R.V. — got less revenues than they deserved. Some entities — like the Blair Oaks School District — got more revenues than they deserved. For the past four months, the county has been drawing up a plan to get some of these mistakenly diverted revenues paid back to the right parties.

Payment plan

But to understand why this small surtax has big implications now, you have to understand the county's plan to fix the problem. Take the Blair Oaks School District for example. They got too much money — $774,000 more than they deserved.

Under the county's plan, the district would pay that back over the next 20+ years — something the district generally agrees it should do. But the district doesn't like the county's plan, it says the county hasn't independently certified the dollar amount that all government entities are supposed to pay back. That's why it won't sign off on it.

But if the district doesn't sign off on the plan — which doesn't seem to be imminent before a lawsuit's filed — then, as Cole County Commissioner Marc Ellinger explained to me, the district will not get a payment plan to get the money all back to the county. The judge, Ellinger explained, would ask for one lump-sum check from the district — the judge may set a higher or lower number.

It's possible the district is setting itself up to argue in court the county can't take the money back after the fact. The statute of limitations that applies to this case is only believed to be 3 years long — but Jefferson City's city attorney Nathan Nicklaus told me that statute is not set in stone.

Chilling effect.

An even bigger consequence in this could be a cooling in the working relationship between Jefferson City and the county. As Nicklaus told me, the primary source of these county surtax revenues is Jefferson City itself. He says the two entities have a good partnership.

And yet now, Jefferson City says it will file suit against the county to make sure it can recover its losses — even though it agreed to the repayment plan, and it's Blair Oaks that still has a beef with the county.

Kyle Stokes

KBIA producer for Talking Politics, Anchor

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Catfish" And The Spoiler Debate

I just saw the movie Catfish at Ragtag Cinema - don’t worry, I won’t ruin the twist for you. All you’re supposed to know is that it’s a documentary that follows a New York City photographer’s online friendships with two sisters in Michigan as they develop. But it got me thinking about spoilers in general. Ideally, no one should have a movie twist spoiled for them; but shouldn't a really good movie still be good even if you know how it ends?

My aunt chides me for reading movie reviews, saying they give too much away about the plot. A common cause for complaint among movie-goers is previews that give the best parts away: often, the trailer is funnier/more compelling than the movie. The trailer for Ben Affleck’s The Town is a prime example: viewers walk away already knowing who the bank robber is. One could argue that the real suspense of the movie lay elsewhere, but it’s a pretty big chunk of information to just give away.

My argument is that even if the reviewer or trailer give away too much - if it’s a really good movie - I would watch it again anyway, even though I would know what’s coming. I don’t change the channel when Godfather II comes on just because I already know what happens to Freddo.
But … I got to experience that surprise once, the way it was meant to be experienced - while watching the movie. No one told me in advance. Would it have ruined it for me? (Did knowing that Sofia Coppolla was going to suck ruin Godfather III for me?)

I enjoyed Sophie’s Choice despite knowing in advance what her choice was. I did not enjoy Citizen Kane, but I don’t think Rosebud is at fault. And The Crying Game has been a punchline for years.

Perhaps the real question is whether the movie’s worth is totally dependent on the purity of your twist experience. After you see it once, is it worth seeing again? Would you watch Sixth Sense again, or would it bore you? I found Garden State less compelling the second time around, knowing the dramatic revelation to come.

This is especially pertinent to whodunits: the second time I saw Gosford Park, I realized I could hardly understand a word they were saying: in part because of the accents, and in part because of Robert Altman’s insistence on making his actors all talk at once. Before, I had been so focused on figuring out the mystery that I didn’t mind.

Maybe suspense is not important for me. I am happy to sit through episode after episode of Law & Order and House despite knowing that a twist will come at quarter til, and whatever conclusion they reached at half past will be undermined.

Some things are a given. (Don’t worry too much about James Bond: he will pull through.) My friend Annie has taught me several rules. The cute dog will be saved (in most American films). If we see a woman leave a bathroom - she is pregnant. Also, if she coughs, she is probably dying. (For two out of three: see Pearl Harbor).

Knowing the twist, would I see Catfish again? I’m not sure. But notice, I haven’t given away a single ending in this post. There are worse things than having a movie twist spoiled, sure. But even though it might make no difference - why not keep you in suspense?

-Virginia Pasley, Anchor and Reporter

P.S. For those who don’t care about suspense … have at it!