Streptococcus A – or Group A Strep (GAS) – is a bacterial infection of the throat or skin, which usually develops during the winter months.
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UK health officials are warning parents to be on the alert after a recent spate of Strep A infections led to the deaths of at least six children.
Britain’s Health Security Agency issued a rare health alert on Friday urging parents to monitor their children for telltale symptoms of the disease, including sore throat, headache, fever and rash.
Since September, at least six children have died from serious cases of the infection, health authorities said, while the number of reported cases is more than 4.5 times higher than in recent years.
What is Strep A?
Streptococcus A – or Group A Strep (GAS) – is a bacterial infection of the throat or skin that usually develops during the winter months.
While most cases are mild and often go unnoticed, it can also lead to more serious illnesses and complications, such as scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever is a highly contagious bacterial infection that mainly affects young children. It usually causes flu-like symptoms and a fine, sandpaper-like rash, which can usually be treated with antibiotics.
In rare cases, however, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and cause a disease called invasive Group A Streptococcus (iGAS).
These serious infections can be deadly and are believed to be the cause of the recent spate of deaths.
Health officials have therefore urged parents to be vigilant for warning signs of the invasive disease, including a temperature above 38 degrees Celsius (100.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
“It is important for parents to be on the lookout for symptoms and see a doctor as soon as possible so that their child can be treated and we can prevent the infection from becoming serious,” said UKHSA deputy director Dr Colin Brown.
“Be sure to talk to a health professional if your child shows signs of deterioration after a bout of scarlet fever, a sore throat or a respiratory infection,” he added.
Cases are rising after Covid
Five of the deaths have occurred in children under the age of 10 in England, according to the UKHSA. The sixth death was reported at a primary school in Wales by Public Health Wales.
Another death of a 12-year-old schoolboy from London was reported on Saturday but has not yet been confirmed.
Typically, one or two children under the age of 10 die from Strep A during the winter in the UK
In the week to 20 November, 851 cases of scarlet fever were reported in the UK, compared to an average of 186 in previous years.
Health officials have said there is currently no evidence of a new species circulating. The increase is instead likely related to large amounts of circulating bacteria and social mixing following the end of Covid-19 restrictions.
“(We) must recognize that the measures we have taken in recent years to reduce the circulation of Covid will also reduce the circulation of other infections,” Dr Susan Hopkins, UKHSA’s chief medical adviser, told the BBC on Monday Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That means, as things return to normal, these traditional infections that we’ve seen for many years are circulating widely,” she added.
The latest outbreak follows a flurry of other illnesses this year, including monkeypox and a mysterious liver disease that affects children.
Some medics are concerned about the impact the latest outbreak could have on the UK’s already struggling National Health Service.
“The last thing we want is emergency departments being overrun with a new influx of concerned parents,” Neena Modi, a professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London, told the Guardian.
The UKHSA said concerned parents in the UK should contact NHS 111 or their local GP in the first instance if they notice early symptoms in their children, while more serious cases should contact 999 or visit the ED.