Rae Ellen Bichell

Top politicians are in Vail, Colorado, this week for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association.

This post was updated May 28, 2019 at 9:15 p.m. to include the leastest outbreak numbers and an additional infographic.

Measles have reached the highest numbers in 25 years, with more than 900 cases reported so far to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Mountain West is especially vulnerable. According to CDC data, too few kindergarteners in our region are fully vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. One Colorado family took that to heart — and then things got personal.

There’s evidence that bee and butterfly populations are in decline, a phenomenon that some have dubbed the “insect apocalypse.” In response, the Colorado Department of Transportation has brought in a bug expert.

The closest that Travis Rupp came to getting fired from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., he says, was the time he tried to make chicha. The recipe for the Peruvian corn-based beer, cobbled together from bits of pre-Incan archaeological evidence, called for chewed corn partially fermented in spit. So, Rupp's first task had been to persuade his colleagues to gather round a bucket and offer up their chompers for the cause.

Colorado lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill giving patients more protection from a practice called “surprise medical billing,” or “balance billing.” Now, it’s headed to the governor’s desk.

This story was updated May 3, 2019 at 3:40 p.m.

Measles cases have reached a 19-year high in the U.S., but a bill in Colorado aimed at improving childhood vaccination rates didn’t succeed. It didn’t really fail, either. It just got mired in super-long hearings, pushback from the governor and, ultimately, a legislative schedule that ran out of time before the bill could reach the Senate.

“I’m still today trying to figure out exactly what happened,” says Rep. Kyle Mullica, who sponsored the bill.

Michael Osterholm is worried. He directs the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He's also serving a one-year stint as a "Science Envoy for Health Security" with the State Department. And he told Minnesota lawmakers that when it comes to chronic wasting disease, we are playing with fire.

Researchers first identified chronic wasting disease way back in the 1960s. Soon after, Michael Miller got sucked into working on it.

"Yeah, sucked into it is really right," he said.

Miller is a senior wildlife veterinarian with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Back then, local wildlife scientists were studying captive mule deer at a facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. They were trying to figure out how to help mule deer in the wild survive harsh winters, but the animals kept getting sick and dying.

The question of where chronic wasting disease came from reopened in the spring of 2016.

Roy Andersen was monitoring reindeer in Norway. He’s a research technician with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. On a rare, sunny day, Andersen and his colleagues were doing what they often do in the spring: blasting across a snowy plateau, chasing a herd of about 500 wild reindeer.

Heather Swanson and Ryan Prioreschi monitor wildlife with the City of Boulder. They're standing in knee-high golden grass on a slope where the Rocky Mountains start slumping into the plains — the epicenter of a now-international animal epidemic. The ecologists have their binoculars out and they’re staring right at the problem.

A fawn is running circles around the rest of the herd, with the boing of a muscular slinky toy.

Chronic wasting disease is crippling deer populations in the Mountain West, around the country and in bordering Canadian provinces. It's not a bacterium or a virus or even a fungus, but caused by something called a prion, a type of protein that all mammals have in their bodies.

A study in the medical journal BMJ found a strong association between the strength of a state’s gun laws and its rate of mass shootings.

Paul Reeping is an epidemiologist with Columbia University and first author on the paper. He says researchers had already looked at the relationship between gun laws and outcomes like suicide or homicide.

Updated at 1:55 p.m., Feb. 26, 2019:

As a measles outbreak continues in Washington state, a congressional hearing Wednesday will discuss the preventable disease, now considered to be a “growing public health threat.”

Several states are considering legislation to encourage higher rates of childhood vaccines. The response in our region is mixed.

A few months ago, John Parker retired and moved into a salmon-colored log house on a mountain called Tungsten in unincorporated Boulder County.

"Just to get a little piece of heaven, get away from the madding crowd," he says.

Inside, a wood-fired stove fills the house with heat and a low hum. Outside, the snow feels like thick, gritty icing. The wind barrels up a slope, gathering snow into a glittery stream. When the glitter stream meets the house, it curves around and hugs it, piling up around the back steps. It does not feel like the time to think about wildfires. But if that same wind was carrying embers instead of snow, those would follow the same path and instead of glittering, that pile by the back door would be glowing.

Senators from across the country and on both sides of the aisle have introduced a bill to tackle a problematic illness of deer, elk and moose.

It's called chronic wasting disease. Like so-called "mad cow," it’s a prion disease, meaning that it is not caused by viruses or bacteria, but instead by aberrant proteins in the nervous system.

Archaeologists studying a prehistoric site in Golden, Colorado, have found that people lived there thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The site is called “Magic Mountain” after an amusement park that used to own the land back when excavations started in the 1950s.

Archaeologists like Mark Mitchell knew that people, likely nomadic hunter-gatherers, had lived and camped at the site for much of the last 5,000 years. 

The spring thaw is upon us, and parched western states will be watching closely as snows melt and rivers rise. Fancy satellites monitor water levels in the biggest rivers, but they don't spot the smaller streams and waterways that feed into them. Now, some Colorado scientists have hit on a new way of tracking those smaller streams — inspired, by Pokemon.

In the first century, a doctor called Aretaeus of Cappadocia described the rotting smell of "Egyptian ulcers." Ancient Chinese medical literature mentions a disease called "children-killing carbuncle." In 17th century Spain there were references to an illness known as "the strangler."

Fake birth control pills. Cough syrup for children that contained a powerful opioid. Antimalarial pills that were actually just made of potato and cornstarch.

These are, according to the World Health Organization, just a few examples of poor-quality or fake medicines identified in recent years.

In early autumn, it became clear that something was not right in Madagascar.

The country often sees small outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which comes from an infection spread by a flea bite. The disease is now easily treatable with antibiotics.

But this time, the number of cases was growing quickly, and the bacterial infection was spreading in a different, more serious form.

A 79-year-old man picked up an object with his left hand and suddenly felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Something moved in his upper arm. And with that, he was Popeye.

His right arm looked the same as it always had: lean and sagging a little with age. But his left biceps now sported a baseball-size bulge that looked like it could land a powerful punch. The brand-new muscle mound looked even bigger when the man flexed his biceps. The only thing was, it hurt. A lot.

The day Dr. Roberto Montenegro finished his Ph.D. was memorable. But not for the right reasons.

"I still cringe when I think about it," says Montenegro.

It had started well. His colleagues at UCLA had taken him and his girlfriend (now wife) out to a fancy restaurant to celebrate.

Abstinence may have found its most impressive poster child yet: Diploscapter pachys. The tiny worm is transparent, smaller than a poppy seed and hasn't had sex in 18 million years.

It has basically just been cloning itself this whole time. Usually, that is a solid strategy for going extinct, fast. What is its secret?

In the spring of 2016, there was a frenzy over the threat of Zika virus at Brazil's Olympic Games. As infections reached their peak, a group of scientists called for the games to be moved somewhere else. A number of athletes, worried about sexually transmitting the virus to pregnant partners, chose to stay home.

But a group of researchers with University of Utah and the United States Olympic Committee announced Saturday that they weren't able to find any evidence that U.S. Olympians, Paralympians or staff got Zika virus at all.

This past weekend, basketball players from island nations across the Indian Ocean converged in Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, to face off in the regional championships. But no one was to cheer on the teams. The bleachers were empty — because of the plague.

This spring, 16 state patrol officers from Colorado and Wyoming took a couple days off their usual work schedule to do something special. They assembled in a hotel conference room in Denver. As instructed, they wore street clothes for their first assignment: going shopping at nearby marijuana dispensaries.

"It's a brave new world," said instructor Chris Halsor, referring to the years since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana.

The European slug is average in every way: slimy, brownish, shorter than a credit card.

But Arion subfuscus has a minor superpower: When it's scared, it can glue itself to wet surfaces very well, and do so while remaining bendy.

Victoria LaBarre was climbing out of a canyon and into a bright, vast, seemingly lifeless landscape when she started to experience an astronaut's nightmare.

"Suddenly," she said, "I couldn't breathe."

Before she confronts death straight on, Melissa Connor always puts on a pair of rubber boots. The shelf she takes the shoes from includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, a sign warning people to check their shoes for scorpions and a bundle of wooden stakes, each of which will eventually be marked with the abbreviation "Mr." or "Ms." followed by a number.

Three people in New Mexico caught the plague, according to health officials there, who reported the two most recent cases this week.

Yes, this is the same illness that killed an estimated 50 million people across three continents in the 1300s, though these days common antibiotics will get rid of it.

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