TIME Infectious Disease

Bill Gates Thinks This Is the Deadliest Threat to Humankind

Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at a breakfast meeting with the theme "Dialogue: Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Future" during the Boao Forum For Asia Annual Conference 2015 in Qionghai city, south Chinas Hainan province, 29 March 2015.
Cui hao—Imaginechina/AP Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at a breakfast meeting with the theme "Dialogue: Technology Innovation for a Sustainable Future" during the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2015 in Qionghai city, China's Hainan province, on March 29, 2015

He says it could kill tens of millions

In the next 20 years, is it likely that nuclear war, gigantic earthquakes or asteroids could kill 20 million people? Bill Gates doesn’t think so.

But he did tell Vox that such numbers could be felled by a major outbreak of disease — something the 59-year-old billionaire believes has a “well over 50%” chance of happening in his lifetime.

“The Ebola epidemic showed me that we’re not ready for a serious epidemic, an epidemic that would be more infectious and would spread faster than Ebola did. This is the greatest risk of a huge tragedy,” Gates said, claiming that a serious epidemic could kill more than 10 million people a year.

Read more at Vox

TIME Infectious Disease

Pentagon Accidentally Sends Live Anthrax to Multiple Labs

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Getty Images Anthrax bacteria. Light micrograph of a section through tissue infected with anthrax bacteria (Bacillus anthracis). These Gram-positive bacteria (small red rods) are seen with cells (blue) with oval red nuclei. Commonly a livestock infection, B. anthracis

Officials say there is no risk to the public

The Pentagon acknowledged Wednesday that samples of live anthrax were unintentionally mailed to labs in nine states and South Korea, as officials had believed that the samples were dead.

Col. Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s acting press secretary, told reporters there were no suspected or confirmed cases of infection and no risk to the public, according to ABC News. Anthrax can cause severe illness and even death among people who come in contact with it; dead anthrax samples can be used for research.

The samples were apparently shipped from Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on April 30 to a military lab in Maryland, then distributed to labs in nine states. After a lab in Maryland found out their package included live samples, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was alerted.

The CDC and the Department of Defense are working together to investigate the matter.

[ABC News]

TIME Infectious Disease

Hookup Apps May Be to Blame for Rhode Island’s Spike in STDs

Social media and hookup sites are contributing to the "epidemic"

Rhode Island is currently experiencing what health experts are calling an “epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases” — and hookup apps may be partially to blame, officials said.

From 2013 to 2014, infections of syphilis increased 79%, gonorrhea cases went up 30% and new HIV cases increased by about 33%, according to data released by the Rhode Island department of health.

The agency noted that the uptick could be sparked by better medical testing and more people having their STDs checked out and reported. However, the agency also acknowledged the role of high-risk behaviors, including “using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters, having sex without a condom, having multiple sex partners, and having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” the agency wrote in a health alert.

Overall, the rates of HIV/AIDS and syphilis transmission were greater among populations of gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. The rates of all STDs in the state were also higher among African-American, Hispanic and young adult populations, the agency reported.

The health department said the uptick is indicative of a national increase in STDs.

TIME Infectious Disease

New Strain of Rabies Is Found in New Mexico

First new strain found in the U.S. in several years

(ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.) — A new strain of rabies has been discovered in southern New Mexico, federal and state health officials confirmed Tuesday.

While it doesn’t present any more of a public health threat than the known strains of the potentially fatal disease, the discovery is generating curiosity in scientific circles because it’s the first new strain to be found in the United States in several years.

“It’s exciting. It’s related to another bat strain. It’s similar but unique, so the question is what’s the reservoir for this strain,” state public health veterinarian Paul Ettestad said.

When scientists talk about the reservoir, they are referring to animals known to host the virus. In many cases, that can be bats, skunks or raccoons. Those animals usually aren’t tested because it’s assumed they have regular strains of rabies.

Tests are done when it shows up in other animals, including dogs, cats, horses and foxes, Ettestad said.

That was the case when a 78-year-old Lincoln County woman was bitten by a rabid fox in April. Genetic testing at a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lab in Atlanta confirmed the strain was one that never before had been identified.

State officials suspect the rabid fox came in contact with an infected bat that was carrying the strain. “It has probably been out there for some time. We just haven’t looked that hard for it and by chance we found it,” Ettestad said of the new strain.

New Mexico health and wildlife officials have been tracking rabies in the fox population since 2007, when a separate strain found in Arizona gray foxes crossed into New Mexico.

The Health Department will continue working with state wildlife officers to collect foxes that are found dead along roadways in Lincoln County as well as freshly dead bats in hopes of determining where the newly identified strain is coming from, Ettestad said.

About 100,000 animals are tested for rabies each year in the U.S. Of the roughly 6,000 that are positive, only a fraction are tested to determine the type of strain.

So far this year, New Mexico has had only two confirmed rabies cases — a bat from Dona Ana County and the fox from Lincoln County. The state isn’t considered a hot zone for rabies and in fact ranks near the bottom when it comes to the number of cases reported each year.

The virus infects the central nervous system. Early symptoms in people can include fever, headache and general weakness or discomfort.

State health officials warned people to stay away from wild or unfamiliar animals and advised parents to teach their children to never touch a bat or other wild animal.

TIME States

Nebraska Has Ordered a State of Emergency Over Bird Flu

In this May 11, 2015 photo provided by John Gaps III, men in hazardous materials suits load dead poultry to be buried at Rose Acre Farms, Inc., just west of Winterset, Iowa.
John Gaps III—AP In this May 11, 2015 photo provided by John Gaps III, men in hazardous materials suits load dead poultry to be buried at Rose Acre Farms, Inc., just west of Winterset, Iowa.

Over 33 million birds in 16 states have now been affected by the pathogen

Governor Pete Ricketts ordered a state of emergency Thursday after Nebraska’s Department of Agriculture confirmed the highly contagious H5N2 avian flu virus had infected a second farm.

The declaration opens up emergency funding in the hopes it can help contain the pathogen that now threatens what is, according to local officials, a $1.1 billion poultry industry in Nebraska.

“While not a human health threat, the discovery of avian influenza is a serious situation for our poultry sector, and I want to provide responders with access to all appropriate tools to address it,” said Ricketts in a statement.

The proclamation follows similar actions taken in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. More than 33 million birds in 16 states have now been affected by the outbreak, which originated in a small backyard flock in Oregon.

The outbreak has hit Americans’ pocketbooks as, the Associated Press reports, the price of large eggs in the Midwest rose by 17% since mid-April and other price increases are being seen in turkey, boneless breast meat and mixing eggs.

TIME Infectious Disease

California Bill to Scrap Vaccine Exemption Moves Forward

TIME.com stock photos Health Syringe Needle
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Bill that would prohibit parents from not vaccinating their kids passes state senate

The California senate has passed a bill that could help ensure that parents vaccinate their children, months after a measles outbreak in the state linked to low vaccination rates.

The bill, which passed the senate 25 to 10, would prohibit parents from not vaccinating their kids for religious or philosophical beliefs, public radio station KPCC reports. The bill now moves on the state assembly. If it eventually becomes law, California would become the 32nd state to ban such exemptions from vaccines.

The bill comes only a few months after a measles outbreak which infected 169 people from 20 states was traced back to a Disneyland theme park in the state. Researchers point to low vaccination rates as the reason for the outbreak.

Opponents of the bill argues it goes against parents’ rights to make decisions about their children’s health. Kids who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons would still be exempt.

 

TIME Infectious Disease

Everything You Want to Know About the Bird Flu Outbreak

An egg-producing chicken farm run by Sunrise Farm is seen in Harris, Iowa on April 23, 2015. Iowa, the top U.S. egg-producing state, found a lethal strain of bird flu in millions of hens at an egg-laying facility on Monday, the worst case so far in a national outbreak that prompted Wisconsin to declare a state of emergency. The infected Iowa birds were being raised near the city of Harris by Sunrise Farms, an affiliate of Sonstegard Foods Company, the company said.
Joe Ahlquist—Reuters An egg-producing chicken farm run by Sunrise Farm is seen in Harris, Iowa on April 23, 2015. Iowa, the top U.S. egg-producing state, found a lethal strain of bird flu in millions of hens at an egg-laying facility on Monday, the worst case so far in a national outbreak that prompted Wisconsin to declare a state of emergency. The infected Iowa birds were being raised near the city of Harris by Sunrise Farms, an affiliate of Sonstegard Foods Company, the company said.

More than 30 million birds have been culled so far

The United States is dealing with a nasty bird flu outbreak.

Sixteen states have reported cases of highly pathogenic H5 avian flu among flocks of birds like turkeys and chickens as well as wild birds since last December, resulting in the culling of at least 30 million birds. Recently, the disease was confirmed in a flock of 1.7 million chickens in Nebraska. Other states have also been hit hard, like Iowa, where more than 24 million birds from 39 different sites have been affected. On Wednesday, TIME asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) a few questions regarding the recent outbreak.

How many strains of bird flu are circulating?
So far in this outbreak, the U.S. has seen highly pathogenic cases of H5N8 and H5N2 strains in domestic poultry. Those same strains as well as a H5N1 strain have been discovered in wild birds. According to the USDA, the H5N8 virus started in Asia and spread among wild bird migratory pathways in 2014, and has mixed with other bird flu strains in North America, which has resulted in what the USDA calls new “mixed origin” viruses. The H5N1 seen in North America is not the same virus that has been seen in Asia, Europe and Africa, which has caused human infections.

Are all these outbreaks connected?
Yes, the viruses are all linked. According to the USDA, since mid-December 2014, there have been several ongoing highly pathogenic avian influenza incidents along the Pacific, Central and Mississippi Flyways (routes used by migrating birds).

How does bird flu spread between states?
Among wild birds, outbreaks along flyways may explain some of the spread. But how it might be spreading from farms that are far away from one another is less understood at this time. The USDA says it’s currently conducting epidemiological investigations to understand how the virus is being introduced some of these other populations of birds. “Poultry operations have a very complex variety of inputs including air, feed, people, vehicles, birds, water and others,” the agency told TIME in an email. “Any of these might be the pathway of virus introduction on any single operation.”

Where does bird flu come from? Can someone be at fault?
As mentioned earlier, some of the viruses currently seen in the North American outbreaks originated in Asia and then spread to the U.S. and mixed with other viruses. It’s important to know there is a flu for birds just as there is for humans and, like people, some of these strains are worse or more severe than others. According to the USDA, native North American strains of bird flu occur naturally in wild birds and they can spread to domestic birds like poultry. Most often there are no signs a bird is infected. But in some cases, as with the current outbreak, the viruses are highly pathogenic. That means they kill chickens and turkeys quickly, and they spread fast. The USDA says there is no fault in an outbreak like this.

Why has this outbreak spread so much?
To date, the USDA says around 30 million birds have been culled (slaughtered) due to confirmed presence of the bird flu strains. Researchers are still conducting studies to learn how the virus is spreading to poultry operations, but the agency points out there have been other serious outbreaks in the past. For instance, in 1983 to 1984, 17 million chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl in Pennsylvania and Virginia were culled. In 2007, the presence of low pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza in West Virginia resulted in 25,600 poultry being culled. The high number of birds slaughtered during this outbreak is hard for farmers involved, but 30 million is still considered a small percentage of the overall U.S. poultry population. In 2014, according to the agency, the U.S. poultry industry produced 8.54 billion broilers, 99.8 billion eggs, and 238 million turkeys.

I can’t be infected, right?
Right. The virus strains involved in the current outbreak have never infected humans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the risk to the general public is currently low. However, the possibility of human infections cannot be completely ruled out, as similar bird flu viruses have infected humans in the past. In an April news conference, Dr. Alicia Fry, a CDC influenza control expert, told reporters “it is possible that we may see human infections with the viruses associated with recent U.S. bird flu outbreaks. Most human infections with avian influenza viruses have occurred in people with direct or close and prolonged contact with infected birds.” Fry said the CDC is “cautiously optimistic” there will not be human cases, but they are already preparing for the possibility just in case.

So what can I do to make sure I am safe?
The recommendations for the general public are to avoid wild birds and stay at a distance. The CDC says people should avoid contact with domestic birds or poultry that appear ill or have died, as well as surfaces that may have been contaminated with wild or domestic bird feces. People who do have contact with infected birds should monitor themselves for flu-like symptoms and some may even be given preventative antiviral drugs.

How can I tell if a bird is infected?
What has been observed is that turkeys will stop eating or drinking and then, sometimes only within a few hours, they will start to appear lethargic. The birds may look as though they are stargazing, the USDA says, or twisting their neck. Death happens pretty quickly after that. In chickens, they may start laying fewer eggs and stop eating. They can also look lethargic before they die.

Is there a vaccine?
There is currently a vaccine under development for emergency use in poultry, but it’s still too early for use. The CDC is also creating candidate vaccine viruses that could be used to make a vaccine for humans if one were needed. But this is a routine precaution.

TIME Infectious Disease

Bird-Flu Outbreak Spreads to Nebraska

It is the 16th state with cases since December

An avian-flu outbreak has been confirmed on a commercial poultry farm in Nebraska, the Department of Agriculture said Tuesday, marking the 16th state to report cases in a flock.

The egg-laying farm in Dixon County is home to some 1.7 million chickens, the federal agency said in a statement, and in addition to quarantine measures, the affected chickens will be euthanized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the risk to humans to be “low” but the infection and spread of the virus can be economically devastating to farms.

More than 32 million birds have been affected by the virus since the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed several cases in December.

Read next: The New Bird Flu Outbreak: Should You Worry?

TIME Infectious Disease

Scientists Find a Way to Predict West Nile Outbreaks

mosquito-human-skin
Getty Images

Outbreaks of the mosquito-borne disease correspond to climate

Scientists have discovered connections between weather conditions and incidence of West Nile virus disease in the U.S., which may pave the way for better outbreak prediction.

The findings, which were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, reveal that U.S. West Nile virus outbreaks occur at a higher incidence when temperatures in the previous year were above average. Rain can also influence outbreaks in different regions.

The researchers, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), say the weather may influence the breeding patterns of the mosquitoes that spread the virus. The weather may also be impacting other carriers of the disease, like birds.

The researchers say that if it’s possible to create an accurate prediction system, it will be easier to alert the public of outbreaks before they happen.

West Nile is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the U.S. The vast majority of infected people have no symptoms, though about 1 in 5 will develop a fever and other other symptoms like headache and vomiting. In very rare cases—less than 1%—people develop neurologic illness. Currently there is no vaccine or treatment.

To reach the findings, the researchers conducted an analysis of how weather impacts the disease in counties nationwide from 2004 to 2012. They tracked reports of illness as well as weather-related factors like precipitation and temperature. In the Northeast and Southeast, for example, when there was an annual temperature increase of 1.8° Fahrenheit above the 2004-2012 average, there was a fivefold spike in the likelihood that there would be a larger-than-usual West Nile outbreak.

MORE: You Asked: Why Do Mosquitoes Always Bite Me?

The scientists saw some interesting differences in links with precipitation across the country. The data showed that in the East, a fall and spring that were drier than normal were linked to an above-average number of West Nile outbreaks. But the opposite was true in the West. Wetter-than-average seasons meant more West Nile.

“We’re still many steps away from implementation, but I could envision CDC using a West Nile virus forecast to put out alerts for different regions of the country at the beginning of the summer so that people are aware of the potentially heightened risk and would be more likely to wear mosquito repellent or long sleeves when they’re outside,” says study author Micah Hahn, a scientist with both NCAR and CDC.

Hahn says mosquito control agencies could also use such a forecast to make decisions about how many seasonal workers to hire or implementation of mosquito control.

“If we can predict West Nile virus outbreaks, we can target public health messages to high risk regions of the country,” says Hahn. “Counties will have additional information to use for deciding when, where and if they should do mosquito control.”

Such a tool could be becoming increasingly necessary. “Our study does not assess the impact of climate change on West Nile virus,” says Hahn. “That said, as a scientist studying climate and vector-borne diseases, I can say that we expect to see changes in weather extremes, more heavy rainfall events or more droughts, for example, as the climate continues to change, which may influence the distribution, abundance, and infection rate of mosquitoes that transmit West Nile virus.”

TIME Infectious Disease

Chlamydia Outbreak Hits Texas High School With Abstinence-Only Sex-Ed Program

A West Texas high school is considering expanding its sex-education program beyond teaching abstinence after 20 cases of chlamydia were confirmed among students this week.

“We do have an abstinence curriculum, and that evidently ain’t working,” Jim Rumage, superintendent for the Crane Independent School District, told KFOR-TV about the outbreak at Crane High School.

“We need to do all we can,” he added, “although it’s the parents’ responsibility to educate their kids on sexual education.”

With a school population of about 300, roughly one in 15 students has the sexually transmitted disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the outbreak a health issue of “epidemic proportions.”

Rumage defended the school’s sex-ed program – three days of abstinence-only advocacy each fall – in a separate interview with the San Antonio Express-News. “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease … That’s not a bad program,” he said.

Some residents are already clearly unnerved by the outbreak, which was so severe that the district sent letters home to parents last week. “I have a kid. Honestly, I don’t want my kid growing up in an area where nasty stuff like that happens,” one resident told KWES-TV.

School district officials met on Monday to discuss possible changes to the sex-ed teachings. Any changes would have to be approved by the school board in a vote on May 19.

This article originally appeared on People.com

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