Baby's legs amputated as Australia sees surge in devastating illness

Aussies urged to beware of warning signs as Strep A cases rise.

Australians are being warned about a devastating illness that's claimed the lives of dozens of children worldwide, as cases of group A Streptococcus begin to surge across Australia.

A one-year-old boy from NSW has had both of his legs amputated after the infection took hold of his body and forced him into septic shock. The boy named Ryan suffered cardiac arrest and was facing brain damage, which all started with a runny nose and a temperature.

The severe infection, commonly known as Strep A, has put authorities on high alert with one expert telling Yahoo News Australia "now is the right time to educate people" about its severity.

Baby Ryan in hospital bed following Strep A infection
Doctors amputated one-year-old Ryan's legs below the knees, along with multiple fingers and finger tips, after he contracted a severe Strep A infection. Source: Supplied

In many cases, Strep A, also known as iGAS, commonly presents itself in a milder form, such as strep throat, which many people are familiar with, according to Dr Bart Eijkelkamp, Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Flinders University. But an invasive strain we're seeing now "can do a lot more harm" he said, warning younger children are most at risk.

So far, the UK has recorded 190 deaths due to the infection, including 30 children, it was reported last week. In Australia, two Victorian children died from the illness last year with hundreds more hospitalised across the country.

The illness can be fatal within hours, said Professor Jonathan Carapetis, executive director of Telethon Kids Institute. "I'd describe it as the nastiest bug you’ve probably never heard of... it’s the sort of bug that can kill you in hours," Professor Carapetis told The West Australian last week.

According to data from the Department of Health's National Communicable Disease Surveillance Dashboard, there were 1,163 cases of iGAS in Australia in 2022, 9News reported. Most cases occurred in Western Australia, NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

"Usually between seven and 20 per cent of cases that get the nasty strep infection will end up dying," Professor Carapetis told the ABC. At first, symptoms are very similar to influenza, Dr Eijkelkamp explained with a fever, respiratory issues and muscle aches being common symptoms. Mottled skin, or red swollen skin, might also be present, "an indication that bacterium has invaded that particular part of your body and is causing a major infection".

Ryan survived a cardiac arrest
Ryan is lucky to be alive after suffering a cardiac arrest. Source: Supplied

"It’s those early days that are really tricky because realistically it would not appear any different to a normal viral infection. Primarily it's your immune system trying to fight this bacteria," he said. "You can actually go into septic shock and that could be lethal immediately. The transition from cold and flu symptoms to a complete shutdown of organs can occur pretty rapidly. That’s the scary part of it".

While Ryan's case is "rare" and even "extreme", Dr Eijkelkamp said "there's potentially a risk of this becoming more common". Ryan's family is accepting donations via a GoFundMe campaign to assist with medical and relocation costs after moving over 500km from Broken Hill to Adelaide for the infant's treatment.

Overall, case numbers appear to have risen in December 2022 and then decreased in January 2023, data from the Department of Health and Aged Care shows. However, a spokesperson noted the figures could be skewed. "Many states and territories only began reporting cases nationally in October 2022. Consequently, these data cannot determine whether there is an actual increase in cases or whether this perceived increase is influenced by increased reporting by clinicians and states, seasonal fluctuation in case numbers or other factors," they said.

The department is continuing to closely monitor iGAS notifications, and is working closely with the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) and jurisdictional representatives with respect to the management and communication around this recent increase in reported cases.

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