Health officials in Britain have said several children have recently died after being diagnosed with invasive group A strep, sounding the alarm for schools and urging parents to take action.
“We are seeing a higher number of group A strep cases than usual this year,” Dr Colin Brown, deputy director of the UK Health Security Agency, said in a press release on Friday. While the bacterium usually causes mild infections, he said, in rare circumstances it can cause more serious illnesses.
He urged parents to be alert to symptoms and seek medical attention as soon as possible if their child begins to show signs of deteriorating health.
Jim McManus, president of the Association of Chief Public Health Officers in Britain, expressed similar concerns to the BBC, telling the network that the number of serious cases would rise.
“We seem to have forgotten that strep A is there,” he said. “In some cases, we may have thought it was gone because we thought of other infections.”
Here’s a breakdown of what we know.
What is group A streptococcus?
Group A strep is a common bacteria that can be found in the throat or on the skin, according to the UK Health Safety Agency. The bacteria doesn’t always cause illness, but it can cause tonsillitis, sore throats, rashes, scarlet fever, and impetigo.
In older adults, very young children, or immunocompromised people, the bacteria can also sometimes enter the bloodstream and cause a more serious condition known as invasive group A streptococcus, or iGAS.
Necrotizing fasciitis, necrotizing pneumonia, and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome are some of the infections caused by iGAS. They are frequently fatal.
Is it contagious?
Yes. Group A streptococcus is highly contagious and is spread through close contact with an infected person. It can be transmitted in a number of ways, including through coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with a wound, health officials said.
Even if a person does not feel sick or show symptoms of infection, the bacteria can be transmitted. However, the risk of spread is greater when someone is visibly ill.
Officials note that infections rarely become serious and that when treated with antibiotics, a patient with mild illness ceases to be infectious about 24 hours after treatment begins.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may include sore throat, fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and rash.
How serious is the situation?
As of Tuesday, seven children in England had died after being diagnosed with invasive group A strep, a spokesman for the UK Health Security Agency said. Additional deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland and Wales.
Government officials said there had been an increase in cases of invasive group A strep this year, mainly in children under 10. So far this year, there have been 2.3 cases per 100,000 children aged 1 to 4. Between 2017 and 2019, there were an average of 0.5 cases in this age group. The next older age group has seen a similar increase in cases: 1.1 per 100,000 children between the ages of 5 and 9 this year, compared to 0.3 from 2017 to 2019.
During the 2017 to 2018 winter season, four children under the age of 10 in England died.
Why are cases increasing now?
It is unclear. Health officials said there was no evidence that a new strain was circulating, but the increase in infections is most likely linked to large amounts of bacteria circulating.
Doctors said a combination of factors, including greater social mixing compared to previous years and an increase in other respiratory viruses, could be contributing.
I am a parent. What can I do?
Trust your own judgement, health officials said. You may want to contact a doctor for a number of reasons, including if your child’s condition is getting worse, you notice they are eating less than normal, you notice signs of dehydration, or if your child feels very tired.
Parents may want to call emergency services if they notice their child having difficulty breathing or observe pauses in a child’s breathing.
Also, don’t underestimate the importance of good hand and respiratory hygiene – washing your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and using tissues to cover coughs and sneezes – to help stop the spread of viruses.
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