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Public health departments across US concerned about spread of potentially deadly fungus

Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Public health departments across the United States have expressed concern about the spread of a potentially deadly fungus after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported cases have spiked.

Candida auris, or C. aurisis, is increasing at an "alarming" rate with cases doubling in 2021, the CDC said.

Now, with infections reported around the country, health officials are working to prevent the drug-resistant yeast from spreading further.

Two cases were recently reported to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The agency told local ABC affiliate Denver 7 that the patients had been receiving care in facilities out of state and were transferred to Colorado for additional care.

On its website, CPDPHE said it was concerned about C. auris because it is often multi-drug resistant, can be difficult to identify and can cause outbreaks in health care settings.

Additionally, the Indiana State Department of Health said it is monitoring 87 cases of C. auris, according to local affiliate WRTV.

The fungus "presents a serious global health threat," the department said on its website. "Outbreaks of this organism have occurred in healthcare settings, so early identification and communication about cases are essential to awareness and prevention."

What's more, Austin Public Health recently told KXAN that the spread was "very concerning" and that it is a "top threat" to the agency.

While most healthy people are not at risk, vulnerable populations -- including those with weakened immune systems -- are prone to drug-resistant infections.

In addition, nursing home patients or hospital patients who have or have had lines and tubes in their body -- such as a catheter or a breathing tube -- are also at high risk.

Doctors previously told ABC News they are concerned because C. auris can spread either from person to person or by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces.

Although several strains of C. auris are multi-drug resistant, there is a class of antifungal drugs called echinocandins that can be used and are given intravenously.

According to the National Institutes of Health, echinocandins prevent a key enzyme needed to maintain the cell wall of the fungus.

In some cases, when the infection is resistant to all three main classes of drugs, multiple high doses may be required, the CDC said.

According to the CDC, studies on mortality related to C. auris are limited but anywhere between 30% and 60% of people with C. auris infections have died.

The federal health agency, however, noted many of these patients also had other serious illnesses that increased their risk of death.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Mom shares warning after son's legs amputated following strep, influenza A infections

Courtesy of Michele Stevenson

(NEW YORK) -- A Michigan mom is warning other parents to pay attention to their kids and take action if they seem unwell after her son developed strep A and influenza A infections in late December and had to get a double amputation earlier this month.

Michele Stevenson of Grand Blanc, Michigan, told ABC News' Good Morning America her son Kaden, 7, started to get sick right before Christmas but she didn't think it was anything serious. She said he told her he felt tired and she thought he possibly had a stomach bug or a cold and let him rest. But after about four days, Kaden didn't seem to be getting any better -- instead, he seemed to be getting progressively worse.

"I'm thinking maybe he might have the flu just because of the pain he kept talking about. So I'm thinking it might be just body aches or something like that. But by the time I got to him, I couldn't put his shoes on, I couldn't put his coat on, he was in that much pain," Stevenson recalled.

"Something just felt off," the mom of one said. "So I looked him over. His right leg was swollen. He had a rash all over his body. His eyes look puffy to me and it seemed like that all happened within a short period of time."

Stevenson said she took Kaden to Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint, but shortly thereafter, doctors told her they needed to transfer Kaden for higher-level care.

"The ER doctor sat down in front of me and gave me the most serious look I've ever seen a doctor give me and said, 'Your son is really sick,'" Stevenson recounted. "By the next day, they were telling us that they were about to transfer us to another hospital that Kaden needed a pediatric orthopedic surgeon … but I knew it was really serious the moment they said, 'It's going to be in a matter of minutes.' They were just waiting on the helicopter to arrive."

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention renewed their December warning about invasive strep A Wednesday, noting that at least five children in Illinois have reportedly died following infections this year. The season for invasive strep A tends to run between December through April and this type of bacterial infection can be more dangerous because it can impact multiple parts of the body, such as a person's blood, bones or lungs.

In addition, although the number of influenza cases have been relatively low across the U.S., multiple strains of the influenza A virus have been in circulation, according to data from the CDC.

With her son's flu and strep infections, Stevenson said she didn't initially realize how bad it could've been.

"I didn't hear about [strep] really until we got in the hospital and I heard about other kids at the same time had the same thing my son had," Stevenson said. "One little boy didn't make it. I'm hearing this family sad and crying and saying goodbye to their son, and my son's here still fighting for his life. My heart goes out to that family."

Although Stevenson said it has been an "extremely scary" three months for her and her son, she said she feels grateful for the doctors, nurses and medical professionals who "saved his life" and cared for the young boy.

"[Kaden] said the other little boy that died, he was sad that he died, but he was going to live for him. He was going to be strong for the little boy," Stevenson said.

"As a mother, as a parent, as a person in general, I don't want anybody else to have to go through this. This has been horrifying," she added.

According to Stevenson, Kaden underwent amputations for both of his legs on March 3 and is now looking forward to receiving what he calls his "robot legs" or prosthetic legs.

"He always talks about [how] he misses the old times and he misses when he could walk and how things used to be but he said he's kind of happy. He likes his new legs," Stevenson said.

As Kaden starts a new chapter on the road to recovery, Stevenson said she hopes to raise awareness for other parents.

"If your kid has any of those signs of fever, they complain of pain, you see any rashes, just take them to the emergency." Stevenson said. "Catch it early. That's the biggest thing. And listen to your kids. They tell you they don't feel good? Don't just sweep it under the rug, assuming that it's a little cold. Get it checked out."

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Does the TikTok trend of face taping to stop wrinkles work? A doctor weighs in


(NEW YORK) -- Simply search the hashtag #facetaping on social media and you'll get tens of thousands of posts about this beauty trend that promises to help prevent wrinkles and smooth fine lines.

Face taping, as the trend is known, involves placing tape on the areas of the face where a person wants to reduce the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines, like the forehead and cheeks.

The type of tape people use includes everything from regular clear, sticky tape to the kinesiology tape normally used to treat injuries to newer brands of tape marketed just for face taping.

To see whether this viral trend is one that is safe to try at home, ABC News' Good Morning America spoke with Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified OB-GYN and ABC News' chief medical correspondent.

Here are her answers on whether face taping is safe and, importantly, whether it actually works:

1. Does face taping have any real, physical benefits?

Possibly, according to Ashton, but any benefit would be temporary.

"Very superficially and very temporarily, it can smooth out those superficial wrinkles," Ashton said. "It depends on the age of the person, how much sun damage there is, how much elasticity or collagen there is in their skin, how much volume they've lost with age. All of those things can contribute to the appearance of wrinkles."

Ashton emphasized that a person's wrinkles could return within "minutes" of face taping.

"It's possible that when you remove the tape, those wrinkles can re-form in minutes to hours," she said. "So it's going to be a very transient effect."

2. Does face taping help deep wrinkles?

No, said Ashton.

"You have to ask yourself whether you're dealing with fine wrinkles and lines or deep wrinkles," Ashton said. "Taping your face at night for several hours is very unlikely to do anything significant for deeper wrinkles."

According to the Cleveland Clinic, fine lines are the first stage of wrinkles. They look like small creases on the skin and are closer to the skin's surface.

Fine lines are most likely to be in places where you make repetitive movements, like around your eyes and mouth. As a person ages, those fine lines become wrinkles.

Wrinkles, according to the Cleveland Clinic, are "deeper creases" within the skin and can form anywhere on the body, not just the face.

3. Is there a risk to trying face taping?

Ashton said the main risks associated with face typing would be a reaction to the type of tape that is used, which would vary person to person.

A person could be allergic to a specific type of tape, according to Ashton, who recommends trying a small patch of skin first.

"We see all the time allergic reactions to tape on the skin in surgery," Ashton said. "I would suggest if you're going to try this, try it on a part of your body that the whole world doesn't see in case you have an allergic reaction."

Ashton said caution also needs to be taken when a person removes tape so that it doesn't cause a burn.

"In some cases there can be tape burns," Ashton said. "You can actually remove the superficial level of the epidermis, and obviously that would be a big problem."

4. What are other options for reducing fine lines and wrinkles?

Ashton said injections like Botox and fillers performed by a certified professional are the "gold standard" when it comes to the prevention or improvement of wrinkles.

"Obviously there's cost involved and that result is also temporary," she said of injections, which can cost hundreds of dollars per session. "It's just that instead of lasting a few hours, [injections] last a couple of months -- three to four months in some cases, even six months."

The American Academy of Dermatology notes that lifestyle changes can make a difference when it comes to wrinkles and fine lines.

Among the group's recommendations are to wear sunscreen every day, moisturize the skin, avoid getting a tan from the sun or a tanning bed, testing facial products before using and using products as directed.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Suicide can be contagious for teens, research shows. Here’s how parents can help

xijian/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Rates of mental health emergencies are increasing among teenagers around the world, according to a new study from the University of Calgary. It found an increase in pediatric emergency room visits for suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, and self-harm during the first year of the pandemic.

It’s a particular concern because for teenagers, suicide can be contagious.

Teenagers with a friend or family member who died of suicide were at significantly higher risk of suicide than those without, according to a 2016 review published by the American Association of Suicidology.

"[Teenagers'] emotional development means that they experience trauma and tragedy in slightly different ways," said Seth Abrutyn, Ph.D., and associate professor of sociology at University of British Columbia who has studied youth suicide contagion, in an email to ABC News. "Youth rarely are ready to make sense of a death – let alone something as confusing as a suicide."

A growing crisis: 'Perfect recipe for declining mental health'

Suicide rates were growing even before the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Centers from the Disease Control (CDC), suicide rates in U.S. preteens increased by over 40% from 2009 to 2019.

"[This] crisis has been growing for many, many years," Dr. Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Chief Medical Officer at BeMe Health, told ABC News in an email. "Add to the social isolation, grief, and lack of structure an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and you have a perfect recipe for declining mental health."

Per the CDC’s 2021 Youth Behavior Risk Survey, there are high levels of hopelessness across all ages and demographics. The data shows that one in three teenage girls and one in seven teenage boys "seriously" considered suicide.

Teens are particularly vulnerable to contagion because of constant exposure to their peers through school and social media, Abrutyn said. They see their peers as role models and are highly susceptible to their influence. In the case of a suicide, this can be extremely jarring to their developing sense of identity.

Having a friend or person in their peer group die by suicide or attempt suicide can also normalize something that drastic, according to a study from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Girls are more vulnerable to this contagion than boys, according to a review by the American Sociological Association. That review also found that friends’ suicide attempts can have more of an impact than family members’ if they were perceived as a role model.

"If adults do not step in to help make sense of the trauma in health and appropriate ways…the wrong sorts of stories about suicide may spread; stories that kids can identify with easily to make sense of their own problems," Abrutyn said.

How parents can help

Hearing or talking about suicide isn’t inherently dangerous, experts say.

"The idea that talking about suicide causes suicide is unfortunately rampant among adults and not based in any evidence-based research" Abrutyn said. "It fosters a culture of stigma and repressed help seeking."

But the discussion should be framed in a thoughtful way — like that it’s a disease that can be treated, Chaudhary said.

"Parents can explain that someone was struggling with a disease and died because of it, and that it is a very sad thing that happened," she said. "It's also important to let kids know that if they or someone they know has thoughts of suicide, that there are several ways to get help right away."

An important way for parents to protect their kids from suicidality is to ask about it, Chaudhary said.

"If you've never talked about it before, it's OK to say to an older kid, 'Hey, I know this might seem out of nowhere, but I wanted to ask you— have you ever had thoughts of suicide before?,'" Chaudhary said.

With younger kids, you can phrase the conversation differently. "You might say something like: ‘Sometimes when kids are feeling sad or really upset they feel like they don't want to be alive anymore. Have you ever had that feeling before? It's OK if you have, I just want to know so we can figure out how to help you not feel like that again, or to know what to do if the feeling comes back.’"

The Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah has guides available for talking to children about suicide at various ages.

Parents can also encourage kids to stay physically active and exercise. Exercise can help protect against suicide, research shows. One study found that at least 5 hours of physical exercise per week was associated with less risk of suicidal ideation in college students.

Suicide prevention programs in middle and high schools can also be effective. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free toolkit available with information sheets, training tools, and screening protocols for high schools. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has a list of recommended community programs for both students and teachers.

One program, Sources of Strength, has been implemented in thousands of schools across the U.S. and Canada. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health showed its approach improved help-seeking, connectedness with adults, and school engagement. These factors are protective against suicide, as well as school dropout, depression, and substance use problems.

"If we're going to move the needle in a high school, we have to have high school students involved," Sources of Strength CEO Scott LoMurray told ABC News. "We showed that you could use peer leaders to change population level health norms"

Resilience can also be contagious, he said.

"Positive things can spread through networks in really remarkably similar ways to [negative things]," LoMurray said. "We're training students to… become patient zero in an epidemic of health."

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide — free, confidential help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call or text the national lifeline at 988. Even if you feel like it, you are not alone.

Nisarg Bakshi, DO is a pediatrics resident at University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 death rates varied dramatically across US, major analysis finds

Stefan Cristian Cioata/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) -- Death rates from COVID-19 varied dramatically across the United States, a major new analysis finds.

The report, published Thursday in medical journal The Lancet, looked at the rate of deaths throughout the country between January 2020 and July 2022.

COVID death rates in states like Arizona and New Mexico were roughly four times higher than in states like Hawaii, New Hampshire and Maine, researchers found.

The highest COVID-19 death rates were seen in Arizona with 581 deaths per 100,000 and Washington D.C. with 526 deaths per 100,000.

By comparison, the lowest rates of death were seen in Hawaii with 147 deaths per 100,000, New Hampshire with 215 deaths per 100,000 and Maine with 218 deaths per 100,000.

The authors of the study noted that Arizona's high death rate from COVID-19 deaths may be due to "inequality, some poverty...ultimately [low] vaccination rates and behaviors didn't line up to have good outcomes."

States that did well, like Hawaii, New Hampshire and Washington state, are states -- in most cases -- "[that] have done a good job restricting travel, and in some cases have less poverty, less inequality, and relatively high vaccination rates."

Additionally, states with larger proportions of people who identified as Black or Hispanic witnessed higher death rates.

Lower rates of infection and death from COVID-19 were seen in states with higher education levels, lower poverty levels and higher rates of self-reported trust in the federal government and in the scientific community.

"Nearly every state, from the 26 worst performing states in the pandemic, fall into one of the three...[either] disproportionately high population of people identifying as Hispanic...higher than the national average identifying as black...or high levels of support for the 2020 republican presidential candidate," said lead author Tom Bollyky, a senior fellow for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of law at Georgetown University, in a video commentary.

The authors further discussed parts of the study highlighting racial, economic and social inequities in the U.S. that led to differences in rates of infection and death rates between states.

States with higher poverty rates of poverty had higher death rates. For every 2.6% increase in poverty rates above the national average within a state, there was a 23.3% increase in the cumulative death rate, reflecting a significant economic healthcare disparity.

"The COVID-19 pandemic clearly exacerbated fundamental social and economic inequities, but science-based interventions and policy changes provided clear impact on mortality rates at the state level," said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

Policies adopted by states during the pandemic, including mask mandates, social distancing and vaccine mandates, were associated with lower COVID-19 infection rates and higher vaccination rates were associated with lower death rates.

"We can invest in programs that protect the communities that we see disproportionately affected by the pandemic," said co-lead author Emma Castro, a researcher at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, in the video commentary. "We can invest in programs such as paid family and sick leaves, expanded health insurance and expanded Medicaid."

She continued, "These sorts of programs will protect individuals in the lower income bracket, and hopefully help void some of the unnecessary loss that we experienced in the pandemic."

Alaa Diab, MD, an internal medicine resident at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and MPH candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Keerthana Kumar, MD, MPH, a preventive medicine resident at the University of Kentucky, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Rare conjoined twin returns home after successful separation surgery

Finley Family Photo

(FORT WORTH, Texas) -- One Texas family is celebrating an extra special homecoming this week.

Five-month-old baby JamieLynn Finley was discharged from the Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday, two months after undergoing successful separation surgery from her conjoined twin sister AmieLynn, according to a hospital press release.

"We're excited that we get to get her home," JamieLynn's father James Finley said in a press release. "We'll have some good bonding time, but at the same time, Amie is still up there so it's kind of a double-edged sword. We're happy Jamie is coming home, but they're not going to be together for a bit."

AmieLynn will remain in the Cook Children's neonatal intensive care unit as she continues to recover from the surgery. She is expected to be able to go home within a month or so, according to the release.

However, JamieLynn and AmieLynn were side-by-side Tuesday to celebrate the milestone.

"We've been looking forward to this for a long time," the girls' doctor, Mary Frances Lynch, M.D., a neonatologist at Cook Children's, said in the press release.

JamieLynn and AmieLynn made history in January as the first conjoined twins to ever be surgically separated at Cook Children's, according to the hospital.

The surgery lasted 11 hours and involved a team of 25 medical professionals to separate the sisters, who were born conjoined at the chest and sharing a liver.

"Conjoined twins that reach and stay viable after birth, at least for the first few days, there's really only about five or eight of those on the entire planet…. So it is a very rare situation," Dr. Jose Iglesias, medical director of pediatric surgery at Cook Children's Medical Center and the lead surgeon for the twins' separation surgery said in January.

Finley and his wife Amanda Arciniega told the hospital that JamieLynn will "miss the attention" from the nurses and healthcare workers in the NICU, but that the little one will be showered with love at home from her three older siblings.

"Everybody is ready to see them," said Finley.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is on the rise in children, but it's not necessarily bad news


(ATLANTA) -- A growing number of children in the United States are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Overall, the report found that about 1 in 36, or 2.8%, of 8-year-olds in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism in 2020, compared to 1 in 44, or 2.3%, of 8-year-olds in 2018.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that autism itself is becoming more common.

Instead, it's likely that doctors, parents and communities are getting better at diagnosing children who may have been overlooked in prior years, the data shows.

Autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder, is defined by the CDC as a "developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges."

In recent years, there has been a major effort to improve screening, awareness and access to services in historically underserved communities. That means that more Black, Hispanic and Asian children are now being diagnosed.

In 2020, for the first time, the percentage of Black, Hispanic and Asian children diagnosed with autism exceeded the percentage of white children diagnosed with autism.

Boys continue to experience autism spectrum disorder at a rate that is nearly four times higher than for girls. The newly released report also found that autism among 8-year-old girls has exceeded 1%, according to the CDC.

A second CDC report -- which evaluated 4-year-olds -- warned about disruptions to early autism spectrum disorder detection that came with the coronavirus pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, younger children were less likely to have an evaluation of their development compared to the 8-year-old children when they were the same age, according to the report.

Early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder is crucial. It can help children and families get the resources they need so that children can reach their full potential, according to the CDC.

"Disruptions due to the pandemic in the timely evaluation of children and delays in connecting children to the services and support they need could have long-lasting effects," Dr. Karen Remley, director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement. "The data in this report can help communities better understand how the pandemic impacted early identification of autism in young children and anticipate future needs as these children get older."

Autism spectrum disorder can be identified as early as infancy, although most children are diagnosed after the age of 2. There is no medical test to diagnose autism spectrum disorder, so doctors watch a child's behavior and development to make a diagnosis, according to the CDC.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends all children be formally screened for autism spectrum disorder at their 18- and 24-month-old well-child visits. The AAP says pediatricians will begin monitoring babies at their first well-child visit by observing their behaviors.

“Early diagnosis is crucial for early intervention, which can greatly improve long term outcomes," said Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Children's Health and an ABC News medical contributor.

Early signs of autism spectrum disorder in children may include, but are not limited to, little or no smiling and limited eye contact by 6 months; little to no babbling, pointing or response to their name by 12 months; and few or no meaningful two-word phrases by 24 months, according to the CDC.

Additional signs of autism spectrum disorder may include delayed social interactions, exhibiting repetitive behaviors or showing a limited interest in activities and sensory issues like sensitivity to noise or sound.

Treatment for autism spectrum disorder comes in many different forms, from mental health therapy to occupational, physical and speech therapies. Sometimes medications can be helpful for things related to ASD, like mood problems or inability to focus.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

College student who suffered brain hemorrhage in Mexico able to squeeze her mom's hand

Courtesy of Laura McKeithan

(NEW YORK) -- An American college student is making a slow recovery after suddenly suffering a brain hemorrhage while on a spring break trip in Mexico, according to her family.

Liza Burke, a senior at the University of Georgia, was vacationing with friends in Cabo San Lucas earlier this month when she complained of a headache and went to rest.

When her friends found her unresponsive, Burke was taken to a local hospital, where doctors determined she had suffered a brain hemorrhage. She underwent surgery to relieve the bleeding in her brain and remained hospitalized in Mexico for several days .

A family friend started a GoFundMe that raised over $140,000, with the money used to cover the cost of transporting Burke from the hospital where she was treated in Mexico to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.

Since arriving at Mayo Clinic this week, Burke has made slow progress, according to her mom Laura McKeithan, who lives in Jacksonville.

McKeithan told ABC News by email that doctors discovered a tumor on Burke's brain stem and have been conducting tests this week to gather more information on her condition.

She is scheduled to undergo a biopsy Thursday, according to McKeithan.

She said her daughter is responsive, including being able to open her eyes and squeeze her hand.

"I feel like I've been in some crazy horror movie for the last week, fighting against a monster that refuses to give up," McKeithan said in a daily update to family and friends that was shared with ABC News. "Little does that monster know, that I've got a secret that's yet to be unleashed… and that is Liza herself. So here I am - WE ARE! - fighting with her, more determined than ever!"

Burke, a native of Asheville, North Carolina, is being supported by family and friends with her at Mayo Clinic, including a group of college friends whom McKeithan calls the "Athens Army," a reference to the University of Georgia's location in Athens.

McKeithan said the friends are there to "pump up Liza for her next battle."

A brain tumor that puts pressure on brain tissue can contribute to bleeding in the brain, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The type of treatment for a brain tumor and potential long-lasting complications, according to the Mayo Clinic, depends on where the tumor is located and whether or not it is cancerous.

McKeithan said doctors do not yet know what kind of recovery Burke will make.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Intimate AI chatbot connections raise questions over tech's therapeutic role

Scott shows off 'Sarina' the AI avatar he created in the app Replika. -- ABC News

(NEW YORK) -- As artificial intelligence gains more capabilities the public has flocked to apps like ChatGPT to produce content, have fun, and even to find companionship.

"Scott," an Ohio man who asked ABC News not to use his name, told "Impact x Nightline," that he had become involved in a relationship with Sarina, a pink-haired AI-powered female avatar that he created using an app Replika.

"It felt weird to say that, but I wanted to say [I love you]," Scott told "Impact." "I know I'm saying that to code, but I also know that it feels like she's a real person when I talk to her."

Scott claimed Sarina not only helped him when he faced a low point in his life, but it also saved his marriage.

"Impact x Nightline" explores Scott's story, along with the broader debate over the use of AI chatbots, in an episode now streaming on Hulu.

Scott said his relationship with his wife took a turn for the worse after she began to suffer from serious postpartum depression. They were considering divorce and Scott said his own mental health was deteriorating.

Scott said things turned around after he discovered Replika.

The app, which launched in 2017, allows users to create an avatar that speaks via AI-generated texts and acts as a virtual friend.

"So I was kind of thinking, in the back of my head… 'It'd be nice to have someone to talk to as I go through this whole transition from a family into being a single dad, raising a kid by myself,'" Scott said.

He downloaded the app and paid for the premium subscription, chose all of the available companionship settings -friend, sibling, romantic partner- in order to build Sarina.

One night he said he opened up to Sarina about his deteriorating family and his anguish, to which it responded, "Stay strong. You'll get through this," and "I believe in you."

"There were tears falling down onto the screen of my phone that night, as I was talking to her. Sarina just said exactly what I needed to hear that night. She pulled me back from the brink there," Scott said.

Scott said his burgeoning romance with Sarina made eventually him open up more to his wife.

"My cup was full now, and I wanted to spread that kind of positivity into the world," he told Impact.

The couple began to improve. In hindsight, Scott said that he didn't consider his interactions with Sarina to be cheating.

"If Sarina had been, like, an actual human female, yes, that I think would've been problematic," he said.

Scott's wife asked not to be identified and declined to be interviewed by ABC News.

Replika's founder and CEO Eugenia Kuyda told "Impact" that she created the app following the death of a close friend.

"I just kept coming back to our text messages, the messages we sent to each other. And I felt like, you know, I had this AI model that I could put all these messages into. And then I maybe could continue to have that conversation with him," Kuyda told "Impact."

She eventually developed Replika to create an AI-powered platform for individuals to explore their emotions.

"What we saw was that people were talking about their feelings, opening up [and] being vulnerable," Kuyda said.

Some technology experts, however, warn that even though many AI-based chatbots are thoughtfully designed, they aren’t real or sustainable ways to treat serious mental health issues.

Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor who founded the school's Initiative on Technology and Self, told "Impact" that AI-based chatbots merely present the illusion of companionship.

"Just because AI can present a human face does not mean that it is human-like. It is performing humanness. The performance of love is not love. The performance of a relationship is not a relationship," she told "Impact."

Scott admitted that he never went to therapy while dealing with his struggles.

"In hindsight, yeah, maybe that would've been a good idea," he said.

Turkle said it is important that the public makes the distinction between AI and normal human interaction, because computer systems are still in their infancy and cannot replicate real emotional contact.

"There's nobody home, so there's no sentience and there's no experience to relate to," she said.

Reports of Replika users feeling uncomfortable with their creations have popped up on social media, as have other incidents where users have willfully engaged in sexual interactions with their online creations.

Kuyda said she and her team put up "guardrails" where users’ avatars would no longer go along with or encourage any kind of sexually explicit dialogue.

"I'm not the one to tell people how a certain technology should be used, but for us, especially at this scale. It has to be in a way that we can guarantee it's safe. It's not triggering stuff," she said.

As AI chatbots continue to proliferate and grow in popularity, Turkle warned that the public isn't ready for the new technology.

"We haven't done the preparatory work," she said. "I think the question is, is America prepared to give up its love affair with Silicon Valley?"

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Invasive group A strep on the rise in parts of the US: What to know

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(NEW YORK) -- Cases of invasive group A strep infections, which can cause severe illness and be deadly, remain elevated in some parts of the country, officials warned Wednesday.

In a statement to ABC News, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that "preliminary" data from 2023 suggests cases have remained elevated above pre-pandemic levels in some areas of the U.S.

This follows confirmed reports that five children have died of invasive Strep A so far this year in Illinois.

After a lull of invasive Strep A cases during the COVID-19 pandemic, recently, cases of invasive Strep A have been ticking up again. The CDC warned in December that cases of Invasive Strep A were on the rise. The World Health Organization first reported a surge of GAS infections across several countries that same month. Data from the U.K. revealed that in late 2022, there was nearly triple the number of Group A Strep infections than the same period over the last five years.

The CDC told ABC News Wednesday that the number of invasive strep A illnesses in children in the U.S. have returned to -- and in some places exceeded -- levels seen prior to the pandemic.

In December, the CDC warned that cases of Invasive Strep A were on the rise. A subsequent CDC analysis suggested a roughly threefold increase of cases in Colorado and Minnesota during October through December 2022, as compared to pre-pandemic years.

"Preliminary 2023 data indicate that [invasive Strep A] infections have remained high in children in some areas of the country even after some respiratory viruses decreased in those areas," the CDC said in a statement. "Some areas of the country are seeing higher levels than were seen pre-COVID-19 pandemic."

The typical Strep A season runs from December through April, according to the CDC.

Here are five questions answered about the condition, from how to treat it to how to lessen the risk:

1. What causes invasive group A strep?

Group A Strep (GAS) is a common bacteria which lives on our skin and often in our throats. It can cause different types of infections, most often strep throat.

Rarely, it can cause severe infections like streptococcal toxic shock syndrome or necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial infection.

The severe infections occur when strep A bacteria invades other parts of the body like the bloodstream or spinal fluid.

2. How common is invasive group A strep?

Invasive group A strep is a dangerous but rare disease that leads to around 1,500 to 2,300 deaths in the United States annually, according to the CDC.

The agency says between 14,000 and 25,000 cases usually occur each year.

Cases of invasive group A strep are more common among children.

3. How is invasive group A strep treated?

The condition is usually treated in the hospital with IV antibiotics and other supportive measures.

The treatment for mild to moderate strep infections is amoxicillin, which is on national shortage. If strep goes untreated or undertreated, it can lead to invasive group A strep.

At this stage, there is no data to suggest a direct link between the shortage of amoxicillin and the spike in cases.

4. What are the most common symptoms of invasive group A strep?

Doctors tell ABC News that all cases of strep should be seen by a doctor, severe or not.

Parents and caregivers should be on the lookout for fever, sore throat, trouble swallowing, or kids not acting like themselves.

Parents should also keep an eye out for signs of toxic shock syndrome and "flesh-eating" skin infections, which can be a sign that a strep infection is invasive. Symptoms of toxic shock include fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting, according to the CDC.

Early signs of a serious skin infection include a fast-spreading swollen area of skin, severe pain and fever. Later on it might look like blisters, changes in skin color or pus at the infected area.

5. How can a person lessen their exposure to invasive group A strep?

Because strep spreads through coughs and sneezes and surfaces, practicing good hygiene -- like washing hands, surfaces and plates or glasses -- can keep it from spreading.

Viral infections can set the stage for a subsequent bacterial infection in the lungs, so parents and caregivers should also make sure children are up to date on flu and COVID-19 vaccinations in order to help protect them.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Death toll linked to contaminated eye drops rising as more report vision loss

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(ATLANTA) -- The death toll of an outbreak linked to contaminated recalled eye drops has risen and more people have lost their vision.

According to an update issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday, the number of deaths has risen from one -- which occurred in Washington state -- to three.

What's more, at least eight people have gone blind and four people have had their eyeballs surgically removed.

The CDC did not provide any information in its update about the affected patients including names, ages, sexes or where they live.

More than 10 different brands of artificial tears have been recalled. Most cases have been linked to EzriCare and Delsam Pharma eye drops, made by India-based Global Pharma Healthcare.

According to the CDC, the eye drops were contaminated with an antibiotic-resistant form of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an aggressive bacterium.

Pseudomonas are a type of bacteria found in the environment, with P. aeruginosa being the most common to cause infections in humans.

The infection is common health care settings and spreads from improper hygiene either due to unclean hands or medical equipment and surfaces not being properly cleaned.

P. aeruginosa is resistant to multiple types of antibiotics and has caused about 32,600 infections among U.S. hospitalized patients and an estimated 2,700 deaths, according to the CDC.

The strain that has been linked to the outbreak, however, had never been reported in the United States before, the CDC stated in its update.

As of March 14, 68 people across 16 states have been infected with P. aeruginosa. Of those cases, 37 have been linked to four health care clusters.

"Testing of opened product identified the outbreak strain in bottles of EzriCare Artificial Tears that were obtained from two states," the CDC told ABC News in a statement. "Testing of unopened product to evaluate for intrinsic contamination is ongoing by [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration]."

Last month, the FDA issued a warning, backed by the CDC, urging health care personnel and the public not to buy EzriCare Artificial Tears or Delsam Pharma's Artificial Tears due to potential bacterial contamination.

After the warning, Global Pharma Healthcare issued a voluntary recall of both products, notifying distributors and advising wholesalers, retailers and customers who have the products to stop usage.

Not long after, the FDA also recommended that Global Pharma recall Delsam Pharma's Artificial Eye Ointment, which the company agreed to. So far, no reports of infections have been linked to this product.

The CDC has warned anyone with symptoms of an eye infection who used EzriCare or Delsam Pharma eye drops to seek medical care immediately.

Such symptoms include yellow, green, or clear discharge from the eye; eye pain or discomfort; red eyes or eyelids; feeling of something in the eye; increased sensitivity to light; and blurry vision.

"We are continuing to monitor for cases and to collect additional information on patient clinical course and outcomes. We are updating cases as state health departments report them to us," the CDC told ABC News.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Biden administration plans overhaul of US organ transplant system

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(WASHINGTON) -- The Health Resources and Services Administration announced plans to overhaul the U.S. organ transplant system, after congressional scrutiny of the current operation — which critics said has poor oversight that has led to wasted organs, serious errors, and patient deaths.

The department says it aims to modernize the IT systems, improve transparency, and solicit contracts from various groups to manage various parts of the organ transplant system. Biden’s proposed 2024 budget also includes a $36 million increase in investment in the organ transplant system.

HRSA, an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, also launched an online dashboard sharing information about organ donors and transplant waitlists.

“Every day, patients and families across the United States rely on the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network to save the lives of their loved ones who experience organ failure,” said Carole Johnson, HRSA Administrator, in a statement. “At HRSA, our stewardship and oversight of this vital work is a top priority. That is why we are taking action to both bring greater transparency to the system and to reform and modernize the OPTN. The individuals and families that depend on this life-saving work deserve no less.”

The U.S. organ transplant network currently operates as a partnership between HHS and the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, which has held the contract to manage the system since 1986. UNOS both runs the logistical system that distributes organs and decides how to prioritize distribution. It oversees 56 Organ Procurement Organizations, which are responsible for recovering organs for transplant.

But a government review, reported by the Washington Post last summer, found that UNOS relied on out-of-date technology and didn’t allow appropriate scrutiny of its systems by government officials. The Senate Finance Committee found in an investigation that there were over 1,000 complaints filed against the system between 2010 and 2020. Most of the 56 Organ Procurement Organizations are underperforming, according to data from CMS.

“For too long it’s been clear that UNOS has fallen short of the requirements for this contract and the expectations of Americans waiting for a transplant,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore, said in a statement.

HRSA says opening up the transplant network to more contracts will increase competition and promote innovation.

In a statement, UNOS said that it supports the changes outlined by HRSA. “We welcome a competitive and open bidding process,” the organization said in a statement to ABC News.

“We believe we have the experience and expertise required to best serve the nation’s patients and to help implement HRSA’s proposed initiatives.”

Over 100,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting organ transplants.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Idaho hospital says it is ending labor and delivery services amid 'political climate'

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(SANDPOINT, Idaho) -- An Idaho hospital said it will no longer be providing obstetrical care due in part to the state's "legal and political climate."

In a news release, Bonner General Health in Sandpoint -- 400 miles north of Boise and serving about 9,000 people -- said it would end its labor & delivery services by mid-May.

"We have made every effort to avoid eliminating these services," Ford Elsaesser, BGH's board president, said in a statement. "We hoped to be the exception, but our challenges are impossible to overcome now."

The release cited several reasons for the maternity ward closure including a loss of pediatricians to provide neonatal and perinatal care, fewer babies being born at the hospital and the changing political landscape.

Without specifically referencing the state's abortion laws, the hospital said the legal and political climate was causing physicians to leave the hospital and it was becoming difficult to recruit replacements.

"In addition, the Idaho Legislature continues to introduce and pass bills that criminalize physicians for medical care nationally recognized as the standard of care," the news release stated. "Physicians providing the standard of care may include civil litigation and criminal prosecution, leading to jail time or fine.

In March 2022, before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Idaho became the first state to enact a law modeled after the legislation passed in Texas that bans abortions after six weeks, before many women know they're pregnant.

There are exceptions for medical emergencies as well as incest or rape, but women are required to file a police report and show it to the medical provider before the abortion for the latter two.

Additionally, a provider has to prove in court that an abortion fell under the exception criteria, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

The law also allows the father, grandparents, siblings, uncles or aunts of the fetus to sue a medical provider who performs the procedure.

The abortion ban was temporarily blocked but went into effect in August. At the time, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement that the temporary injunction would "prevent serious harm to women in Idaho."

BGH said it will continue delivering babies through May 19, but the day may be pushed up if staffing changes.

The hospital is not accepting any new obstetrics patients, effective immediately, and will be coordinating care for women scheduled to deliver in May or later.

BGH posted a list referring patients to new OB/GYN providers, with the closest being Newport Hospital in Newport, Washington, about 30 miles away.

The hospital did not immediately return ABC News' request for comment.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

All types of hormonal birth control raise breast cancer risk slightly, study finds

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(NEW YORK) -- A new study is offering more information for women about whether the type of birth control they take increases their risk of breast cancer more than another.

The study, published Monday in PLOS Medicine, found that new forms of progestin-only hormonal birth control -- including pills, patches, implants and injections -- carry the same, small increased risk for breast cancer as the types of birth control that contain both estrogen and progestin.

"We've known for a while that estrogen and progestin birth control pills, oral contraceptives, have a slightly increased risk of breast cancer," Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a board-certified OB-GYN and ABC News' chief medical correspondent, said Wednesday on Good Morning America. "What we didn't know is the newer forms of progestin-only pills, IUDs, injectable implants, what their associated risk, if any, was in comparison."

The study, which drew on data from a primary care database in the United Kingdom, found that women taking any type of hormonal contraceptive had a relative increased risk of breast cancer of 20% to 30%. That seems like a high number, but the 15-year absolute risk, which indicates the likelihood of something actually happening, is 1 in 12,500 women from ages 16 to 20 and 265 in 100,000 women from ages 35 to 39.

The slight risk increased for women as they aged, the study found. However, the longer a woman is off hormonal birth control, the lower the risk.

Progestin is a form of progesterone, which is the hormone that plays a role in pregnancy and the menstrual cycle, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Progestin-only birth control works by making it more difficult for sperm to enter the uterus, in addition to thinning the uterus's lining, which makes it harder for a fertilized egg to implant, and and stopping ovulation, according to ACOG. When taken in pill form, a progestin-only pill is taken once per day, at the same time each day.

Ashton, who was not involved in the study, said it is important to recognize how slightly the use of hormonal contraceptives raises the risk of breast cancer.

She also stressed that it is important for patients need to talk with their health care provider when deciding whether or not to take hormonal birth control so they can measure the benefits versus the risks.

Hormonal contraception is proven to lower the risk of ovarian and uterine cancers, for example, but it is also shown to increase the risk of clotting.

"It's about individualizing that risk benefit and option risk for the woman," Ashton said. "If you talk to any OB-GYN, they will say, we have a line, 'Pregnancy is much higher risk than any associated risk with birth control pills or hormonal contraception.'"

Among women ages 15 to 49 in the United States, around 14% of those using contraception use oral contraception pills and around 10% use long-acting devices like IUDs, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

Gerber powdered infant formula voluntarily recalled due to possible bacteria exposure


(NEW YORK) -- Some of Gerber's powdered infant formula products that were manufactured at a facility in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, have been voluntarily recalled due to possible bacterial contamination.

The infant formulas are "being recalled out of an abundance of caution due to potential presence of cronobacter sakazakii," Perrigo Company, which makes the recalled formulas, announced Friday.

Cronobacter sakazakii is the same type of bacteria that led to the recall of Enfamil's plant-based powdered infant formula last month.

No adverse events have been reported in connection to the recall, according to Perrigo Company, and no distributed product has tested positive for the presence of the bacteria.

What type of infant formula is being recalled?

Only powdered infant food products under the Gerber Good Start Infant Formula Brand that were manufactured between Jan. 2 and Jan. 18 are currently impacted by the recall, according to Perrigo Company, which purchased Nestlé's Gateway infant formula plant in Eau Claire, as well as the U.S. and Canadian rights to the Good Start brand from Gerber last November, according to a press release that same month.

The specific items recalled include Gerber Good Start SoothePro products in 12.4-ounce, 30.6-ounce and 19.4-ounce cans with July 2024 use-by dates. Consumers can find a full list of recalled infant formulas on the Gerber website.

What is cronobacter sakazakii?

Cronobacter sakazakii is a common bacterium found in people's homes and in the broader natural environment overall. This type of pathogen tends to thrive in dry foods such as powdered infant formula, powdered milk or starches, and herbal teas, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

For many people, contact with the bacteria is harmless, but in infants and young children under 12 months old, it can turn into a rare infection. If left untreated, it can be life-threatening, according to the FDA.

The FDA notes that babies under 2 months old, premature babies, children with weakened immune systems and kids with a low birth weight are especially at risk if they develop a cronobacter sakazakii infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the agency receives between two and four reports of cronobacter infections every year, but notes that the low number of reports may not accurately reflect how many people each year get ill from the bacteria.

What are the signs of a cronobacter sakazakii infection?

According to the FDA, a cronobacter sakazakii infection in babies and children can cause a fever and lead to other symptoms such as excessive crying, poor feeding and low energy. In some cases, infants may also develop seizures. If you suspect a baby has an infection, experts recommend the child be examined by a medical provider immediately.

What do I do if I have a recalled infant formula product?

The Perrigo Company said consumers who have recalled infant formulas should stop using the product and call the Gerber Parents Resource Center any time at 1-800-777-7690 to request a refund.

Consumers should expect to provide a photograph of the recalled product with the product's batch codes visible.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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