Health officials in Britain said several children had recently died after being diagnosed with invasive Group A streptococcus, sounding the alarm for schools and prompting parents to spring to action.
“We are seeing a higher number of cases of Group A strep this year than usual,” Dr. Colin Brown, the deputy director of the U.K. Health Security Agency, said in a news release on Friday. While the bacteria usually causes mild infections, he said, in rare circumstances it can cause more serious illnesses.
He urged parents to be vigilant of symptoms and to seek medical attention as quickly as possible if their child began showing signs of deteriorating health.
“Although there are more cases this year, the infection itself is no more dangerous than in previous years,” said Jim McManus, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health in Britain. He said there has been a steady rise in strep A cases since 2016, with the exception of during the pandemic when Covid-19 countermeasures meant that infections were much more controlled.
“Now we are mixing as usual, the infection is spreading and with increased numbers of infections there is sadly an increase in numbers of severe cases,” he said. “This also means that there is tragically an increase in numbers of people dying.”
Here’s a breakdown of what we know.
What is Group A streptococcus?
Group A streptococcus is a common bacteria that can be found in the throat or on the skin, according to the U.K. Health Security Agency. The bacteria doesn’t always cause illness, but it can cause tonsillitis, sore throat, skin rashes, scarlet fever and impetigo.
In older adults, very young children or immunocompromised people, the bacteria can also sometimes get into the bloodstream and cause a more serious illness 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 spreads through close contact with an infected person. It could be passed through a few different ways, including coughs, sneezes or by contact with a wound, health officials said.
Even if a person isn’t feeling sick or showing symptoms of infection, the bacteria can be passed on. The risk of spread is greater, however, when a person is visibly unwell.
Officials note that infections rarely become serious and that, when treated with antibiotics, a patient with a mild illness stops being contagious about 24 hours after starting medication.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms can include sore throat, fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a rash.
How serious is the situation?
As of Thursday, 13 children under the age of 18 in England had died after being diagnosed with invasive Group A streptococcus, the U.K. Health Security Agency said in a news release. Additional deaths have been reported in Northern Ireland and Wales. So far this season, there have been 60 deaths across all age groups in England.
There have been 85 invasive group A strep cases in children 1 to 4 years old, compared to 194 cases in that same group across the entire 2017-18 season. In the next age group, 5 to 9 years old, there have been 60 cases this season compared to 117 across the 2017-18 season.
Officials said the majority of cases continue to appear in patients over 45.
In the 2017 to 2018 winter season, four children in England under 10 died.
Why are cases rising now?
It is unclear. Health officials have said that there is no evidence that a new strain is circulating but that the increase in infections is most likely related to high amounts of circulating bacteria.
Doctors said a combination of factors, including more social mixing compared with previous years and a rise in other respiratory viruses, may be contributing.
It’s also important to note that people of any age can get strep A, Mr. McManus said.
I’m a parent. What can I do?
Trust your own judgment, health officials said. You may want to contact a doctor for a number of reasons, including if your child is getting worse, if you observe your child eating less than normal, if you notice signs of dehydration or if your child is feeling 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, do not underestimate the importance of good hand and respiratory hygiene — washing hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds and using tissues to cover coughs and sneezes — to help stop the spread of viruses.