UK: Six children die of Strep A, a common bacterial infection

There is a chance the infection can get severe when the bacteria enters the bloodstream — a condition called invasive Group A Strep

By Taran Deol
Published: Monday 05 December 2022

At least six children have died of a common bacterial infection, Strep A, in the United Kingdom as of December 5, 2022. 

A steep increase has been reported in the number of cases of Strep A, the symptoms of which include fever, skin rashes and a sore easily treated with antibiotics. 

However, there is a chance the infection can get severe when the bacteria enters the bloodstream. 

This is called invasive Group A Strep (iGAS). It usually manifests as high fever, severe muscle aches, pain in an area of the body and unexplained vomiting or diarrhoea. 

Typically, one-two children die of iGAS every winter, government health agency data showed. This year, six children have already lost their lives.

As many as 851 cases of Strep A were reported from November 14-20, compared to an average of 186 for the same duration in preceding years, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Incidence of iGAS cases is also increasing, up from the pre-pandemic 0.5 cases per 100,000  children aged 1-4 years from 2017-2019 to 2.3 cases per 100,000 children this year, the agency noted. 

In an alert issued December 2, UKHSA asked parents to remain vigilant about the health of their children and seek care immediately to mitigate any advancement in the illness. 

Underlining the higher number of cases of Group A Strep this year and the possibility of iGAS, Dr Colin Brown, deputy director of UKHSA, said “this is still uncommon". He added:

It is, however, important that parents are on the lookout for symptoms and see a doctor as quickly as possible so that their child can be treated and we can stop the infection from becoming serious. Make sure you talk to a health professional if your child is showing signs of deteriorating after a bout of scarlet fever, a sore throat, or a respiratory infection.

The cause for the increase in cases is yet to be ascertained. While researchers are investigating whether a new strain is circulating, no conclusion has been arrived upon yet. 

In children under 10 years, the rate of iGAS infection is higher than levels reported in the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic but substantially higher than the past two years, according to UKHSA. “Investigations are underway following reports of an increase in lower respiratory tract GAS infections, particularly empyema, in children over the past few weeks.”

High numbers of Strep A cases are seen in late spring or early summer, often after chicken pox infections, Elizabeth Whittaker, honorary clinical senior lecturer, Imperial College London, told the Science Media Centre. “High numbers at this time of year are unusual and probably occurring as normal seasonality has not yet returned.  We are seeing more pneumonia than usual, most likely as group A strep infections are coinciding with the peak in winter respiratory viruses which are typical for this time of year.” 

Several other researchers have pointed towards a natural fluctuation in disease patterns post the pandemic and the induced lockdowns. Simon Clarke, microbiologist at the University of Reading, presents another possibility for the high number of cases, a statistical blip. “Publication of diagnosed infection numbers is slow and infrequent compared to the sort of data that was released during the pandemic.”

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