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World Briefs II

Virulent Strep Outbreak in Texas

The Washington Post

A virulent strain of streptococcus bacteria has infected 117 Texans in the past three months - more cases than that state typically sees in a year - killing 26 people, including nine children, state health officials said Monday.

Medical investigators said they were at a loss to explain the upsurge in cases, most of which occurred around Austin, Houston and San Antonio. At least 40 children were among those infected with the aggressive bacteria between Dec. 1 and March 1. About a dozen of those children had chicken pox and apparently became infected through the pox sores on their bodies.

The culprit bacterium, called Group A streptococcus, is relatively common. At any given time, it can be found in the mouth and nasal passages of about one-fifth of the population. Only occasionally does it cause a noticeable infection, and most of those cases show up as "strep throat," which normally is easily treated with penicillin.

Occasionally, however, Group A strep turns invasive and potentially deadly, either because it has mutated into an especially virulent variant called M1 or because the victim is unable to fight off the attack. In those cases the bacteria get into the bloodstream and cause a raging infection.

The Texas outbreak of invasive Group A strep is one of many such outbreaks in various parts of the country during the past few years, said Benjamin Schwartz, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Infectious Diseases at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Scheduled Executions in Florida Spur Electric Chair Debate

Los Angeles Times

Four convicted killers, part of the Black Widow, are scheduled to be strapped into Florida's notoriously unpredictable electric chair this month in a rash of executions that civil libertarians fear signals a decision to challenge Texas as the capital of capital punishment.

"Florida's lawmakers' obsession with the use of Old Sparky,' as they affectionately term the electric chair, is particularly gruesome," said Larry Spalding, legislative counsel for the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. "The next thing we'll see is a constitutional amendment to change our motto from the Sunshine State to the Electric Chair State."

Although 380 men and women are on death row in Florida, no one has died in the chair since last March, when flames erupted from the headgear of Pedro Medina in an execution that touched off a yearlong debate on the efficacy and humaneness of Old Sparky. The state Supreme Court subsequently decided that using the chair did not violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Still, some lawmakers have proposed unplugging Old Sparky, a three-legged wooden seat built by convicts in 1924. But in debate last week, a majority in the Florida House and Senate seemed unmoved by arguments that the condemned should have a choice in how they die.

"Dead is dead," said state Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat from Boca Raton. "Whether we do it by lethal injection or the electric chair, we need to do it."