TIME Infectious Disease

California Lawmakers Pass Strict School Vaccine Bill

The bill ends vaccine exemptions for personal beliefs

The California senate has passed a bill that requires most children in public schools to get vaccinations and ends exemptions from vaccinations for personal beliefs.

The bill only allows for kids with serious health problems to not get vaccinated.

The bill is now heading to California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has not said whether he will sign the bill. It would be one of the strictest vaccination laws in the country.

California recently experienced an outbreak of measles that was tied to a Disneyland amusement park. Many of the people infected were not vaccinated.

TIME Infectious Disease

California Lawmakers to Vote on Tougher Vaccine Measures

The bill would end exemptions from vaccinations for personal beliefs

California lawmakers are expected to vote Monday on a measure that would require most children in public schools to get vaccinations.

The bill, which is headed for a final vote in the California state Senate, would end exemptions from vaccinations for personal belief, and would excuse only children with serious health issues from vaccines, reports the Associated Press. Other unvaccinated children would need to be homeschooled.

An outbreak of measles at Disneyland in December infected over 100 people in the U.S. and Mexico, largely due to pockets of unvaccinated Californians.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not said whether he would sign the bill. If it becomes law, California, Mississippi and West Virginia would be the only states with such strict vaccination requirements.


TIME public health

California Moves Toward Stricter Vaccination Rules for Schoolchildren

Getty Images

Months after a measles outbreak infected dozens

Lawmakers in California’s Assembly approved a bill Thursday that would make vaccinations required for schoolchildren, regardless of any parental or religious objection.

The measure, if signed by Governor Jerry Brown following Senate approval of several minor amendments, would be among the strictest mandatory vaccination laws in the U.S., the Los Angeles Times reported. The only way for children starting school to avoid a vaccination against whooping cough and measles would be for a doctor to sign off on an exemption due to a medical condition, like an immune system deficiency or an allergy.

The move comes in the months after a measles outbreak that sickened some 130 people, including visitors to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. If the bill becomes law, California would become the country’s 32nd state to mandate vaccinations regardless of personal beliefs, but only the third to block religious exemptions.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

TIME Thailand

First Case of MERS Confirmed in Thailand, 59 People Remain Under Observation

Thai Airways (THAI)  implements preventive measures
Pacific Press—LightRocket via Getty Images Thai Airways (THAI) implements preventive measures regarding the MERS virus on THAI flights within affected areas; Thai officers spray disinfectant on passenger seats aboard a Thai Airways Airbus A330-300 at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok

Thai Health Ministry officials took four days to verify the case

Thailand announced its first case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, on Friday after a 75-year-old businessman from Oman was diagnosed at a hospital near Bangkok.

According to Reuters, the unnamed man first arrived in the Southeast Asian nation on Monday to seek medical treatment for a heart problem at a private hospital.

Thai Health Ministry officials said it took them four days to verify the case, raising concerns that the deadly virus may have spread in the interim, Reuters reports.

A total of 59 people are being monitored for symptoms after coming into contact with the infected man, who is now being held in quarantine at an infectious-disease clinic. Thai Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin told Reuters that three of those under observation have already been hospitalized.

The announcement comes as South Korea’s MERS outbreak appears to be stabilizing. Twenty-four people have died from the virus in the East Asian country, while a total 166 people have been infected.

Thai businesses have already been affected by the latest case, according to Reuters, with shares in the operator Airports of Thailand dropping 4.2% to their lowest value in three weeks.



TIME Infectious Disease

South Korea’s Latest Fashion Accessory: Face Masks

Residents of the country’s densely packed capital are relying on face masks for protection. But how effective are they?

It may be more psychological than logical. Everyone from school children to the nation’s famously fashion-forward teens are covering up in the face of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus that aims straight for the lungs and makes breathing a challenge. The culprit? Virus particles that spread between people who are in close contact, presumably from saliva and secretions that are released when people cough or sneeze.

Most cases, including the 154 reported so far in South Korea, are spread from infected patients in hospitals to health care personnel or close caregivers. But that hasn’t stopped Korean residents from buying out the supply of face masks in the capital city of Seoul, where the first patient sough medical care after becoming ill.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care personnel or others who come in contact with MERS patients should wear something called an N-95 respirator, which has a disposable, fitted facepiece filter that can prevent users from breathing in droplets that may contain the virus.

Paper face masks, which fit loosely over the face, can also block large droplets or splatter but can’t completely prevent someone from inhaling viruses, especially if they are in close contact with an infected person for a relatively long time. Public areas in South Korea aren’t particularly high-risk locales, but the idea that some barrier is better than no barrier is likely driving the sales of these masks, some of which come adorned with popular cartoon characters and other logos. It’s also an extension of the Asian habit of donning masks when you’re sick—not so much to protect yourself from getting infected with something, but to prevent you from infecting others.

Read next: This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

TIME Infectious Disease

South Korea Tests Plasma Treatment to Combat MERS Outbreak

Death toll climbs to 19 as hospitals test new blood plasma treatment on infected patients

South Korean hospitals have launched clinical trials for an experimental treatment of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a potentially lethal virus that has claimed 19 lives since it first broke out across the country four weeks ago.

The country’s health ministry said Tuesday that two hospitals will use blood plasma from patients who recovered from the disease to treat those who are currently infected, the BBC reports.

Some 150 South Koreans have tested positive for MERS and a further 5,200 have been quarantined as officials work to contain the outbreak. The first lethal infection reached Germany on Tuesday, as a 65-year-old man succumbed to the disease in a clinic in Osnabruck.


TIME South Korea

This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

South Korea MERS Wedding
Sewing for the Soil/AFP/Getty Images A young South Korean couple and dozens of guests standing together for a group photo in Seoul on June 6, 2015. The young South Korean couple became an unexpected symbol of the MERS health scare sweeping the nation after a different photo of the same group showing the couple and guests jokingly posed wearing surgical masks went viral.

MERS has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea

A photo of South Korean wedding attendees wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) went viral this week. It turns out the photo was a joke, but it remains a symbol of how much fear of the disease has grown.

The photo, which was taken at a wedding on Saturday in Seoul, spread quickly on social media. A wedding planner told the Agence France-Press that the attendees had spent the duration of the ceremony without masks, and they never wanted the posed mask photo to be taken seriously.

MERS, which has no known cure, has killed nine people and left more than 2,800 quarantined in South Korea.

Read next: Here’s the Difference Between MERS and Ebola

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Infectious Disease

Patient With Drug-Resistant Form of TB Treated in Maryland

The goverment is seeking people who may have come into contact with the patient

A patient diagnosed with a rare, drug-resistant form of tuberculosis has been taken to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Maryland for treatment, and the government is urgently trying to identify people whom the patient may have exposed to the illness.

The patient traveled from India to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and spent time in Missouri and Tennessee before seeking treatment for “XDR-TB” and receiving a diagnosis seven weeks after arriving in the country, the CDC said. She was transferred to the NIH facility in Bethesda, Maryland via special air and ground ambulances.

“CDC will obtain the passenger manifest for [the India to Chicago] flight from the airline and will begin a contact investigation. Although the risk of getting a contagious disease on an airplane is low, public health officers sometimes need to find and alert travelers who may have been exposed to an ill passenger,” a spokesperson at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.

Only about one third to half of XDR-TB cases have been cured and if the patient survives she may need months or even years of treatment. Cases of XDR-TB are very rare in the U.S. with only 63 cases reported between 1993 and 2011. People with H.I.V. infection or other infections that weaken the immune system are particularly vulnerable to this strain of TB.

TIME public health

Here’s the Difference Between MERS and Ebola

Another disease without treatment or vaccine is spreading

The news sounds familiar: a virus with no treatment or cure is spreading abroad. But while Ebola dominated the infectious disease news over the last year, the latest infection making headlines is the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which has most recently hit South Korea, infecting 87 there and killing 6.

Could the two viruses cause similar damage?

Currently, MERS doesn’t appear to be able to spread like Ebola can. Though it’s in the same family of viruses as SARS and the common cold—both highly contagious—MERS appears to be less transmittable. While Ebola spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, MERS doesn’t spread easily from person to person, and though it spreads through the respiratory tract, very close contact is needed, which is why the risk is higher for health care workers.

Both diseases have high fatality rates (around 3 to 4 of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died) and like Ebola, there is no vaccine or cure for MERS. But right now, MERS is more of a mystery to the medical community.

“Ebola has been around for 40 years so we have a pretty good sense of how it functions and its genome has been pretty stable,” says Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “MERS emerged in 2012 and we are still learning about it, and it may still be learning about us and evolving. It’s believed that when SARS spent more time circulating among humans, it evolved and became more transmissible.” Frieden says they haven’t yet seen that in MERS, but they’re watching: the CDC is currently sequencing the genome of the virus to understand how it might be changing, and to track its course.

The chance that MERS could change to become more transmittable worries experts. “Personally, I am more concerned about MERS following the course of SARS than I ever will be regarding Ebola becoming widespread outside of certain regions of Africa,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh.

MORE What Is MERS? Here’s What You Need To Know

MERS has yet to take that course, Frieden says, but hospitals can be hotbeds for the infection. Through intensive investigations in affected countries, the CDC has determined that more than 90% of the cases could be traced health care exposures. So far there hasn’t been evidence of sustained community spreading. “Hospitals can become amplification points,” says Frieden. “It’s the case in measles, it’s the case for drug-resistant tuberculosis, it’s the case for MERS and SARS and Ebola. That’s where sick people go and that’s where vulnerable people are. It really emphasizes the importance of good infection control in the health care system.”

In May of 2014, the U.S. experienced two cases of MERS. In both instances, the patients were health care providers who lived and worked in the Middle East. Health departments around the U.S. have the ability to test for the virus, and the U.S. has already tested around 550 people in 45 states as a precaution since the disease first emerged in 2012.

MERS and Ebola share an important similarity: a lack of treatments or vaccinations. There’s currently no vaccine. “If there were a vaccine, it’s the kind of thing that might be useful in the camel population, but that’s very theoretical for the future,” Frieden says.

Only 20% of countries are currently able to rapidly detect, respond to or prevent global health threats from emerging infections, like MERS and Ebola, according to CDC data. Countries around the world and official health emergency responders like the World Health Organization have vowed to increase their ability to act during outbreaks that public health experts say are undeniably in our future. Frieden says the CDC in partnership with other countries is accelerating its Global Health Security program, which will increase preparedness worldwide. The CDC is making visits to eight countries in the next six weeks to move the program forward.

“Bottom line, both Ebola and MERS are emerging infections that show us why it’s so important for every country in the world to be prepared to find and stop health threats when and where they emerge,” Frieden says. “We do think the South Korea outbreak will well grow, but there’s no reason to think it can’t be controlled as other outbreaks have been controlled.”

Read next: 6 Dead, 87 Infected, 2,300 Quarantined: South Korea’s MERS Crisis

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME South Korea

Fourth Death Confirmed in South Korea’s Worsening MERS Outbreak

More than 1,300 schools have closed as officials scramble to contain the virus

A fourth person has died in South Korea after being diagnosed with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, health authorities have confirmed.

The 76-year-old man passed away Thursday as he was being treated for the virus in a public hospital, the state-backed Yonhap News Agency is reporting.

Public-health officials say five new cases of the respiratory virus have been identified. Forty-one people in total have been diagnosed nationwide with the potentially fatal viral disease.

Officials this week also ordered more than 1,500 people to self-quarantine after they unknowingly attended a meeting with a physician who was infected with MERS.

According to CNN, the doctor attended a symposium in Seoul in late May despite experiencing MERS-related symptoms. He was finally diagnosed on June 1.

The outbreak has introduced large-scale anxiety into South Korea, forcing officials to close more than 1,300 schools and spurring thousands of tourists to cancel scheduled vacations in the country.

“There are a lot people worried about the situation,” President Park Geun-hye told top officials during an emergency meeting earlier this week, according to Reuters. “Everything must be done to stop any further spread.”

Public-health officials have been under heavy scrutiny as they struggle to prevent the virus from spreading on a daily basis.

A leading health expert in Hong Kong told the South China Morning Post this week that South Korean authorities should learn from the city’s own experience battling Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 — an outbreak that eventually claimed almost 300 lives in the territory and up to 800 worldwide.

“Hong Kong learned a painful lesson from SARS that scattering patients around increases the death toll,” Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, told the Post, urging transparency and centralizing treatment efforts.

On Friday, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon declared an all-out offensive to contain the virus.

“From now on, Seoul city is embarking on a war against MERS,” said Park, according to Agence France-Press. “We will take swift and stern measures … to protect the lives and safety of our citizens.”

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