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Doctors on alert for 'invasive' bacterial infection targeting kids

Australian health authorities dealing with a jump in cases of the deadly infection Strep A in children say they’ve got their eyes on Europe where patient numbers are climbing.

Queensland has reported an increase in cases of the serious bacterial infection with 377 people affected between January 1 and December 18 last year. That’s a 20 per cent increase on the five-year average for the same time period from 2017 to 2021.

Among these cases, nine people died.

The statistics come as the World Health Organisation issues a warning with at least five member states in the European Region reporting an increase in cases of invasive group A streptococcus disease as well as scarlet fever, which can be caused by the disease. There has also been a rise in the number of Strep A deaths with children under 10 the most affected.

A petri dish.
Authorities in Queensland reported a 20 per cent increase in strep A cases in 2022 compared to the five-year average for the same time period from 2017-2021. Source: Getty

“We're not yet sure if we're seeing the increase that's been observed in the UK and Europe,” Dr Adam Irwin, Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Queensland, told Yahoo News Australia. “[But] we are paying close attention.

“I think it's entirely possible that we'll see an increase in the number of invasive group A strep cases over the coming months, similar to the increase that's been observed in the UK and Europe.”

World returns to pre-pandemic levels of Strep A

While it’s not yet known what is causing the rise in cases overseas, Dr Irwin believes it may just be the world catching up with itself after Covid-19.

“There is no indication so far that the reason for the increased numbers of severe cases in Europe is because of the emergence of a single new, virulent strain of Group A streptococcus,” he said.

A boy with Impetigo, a skin infection that causes sores and blisters.
Invasive group A streptococcus disease can cause Impetigo, a skin infection that causes sores and blisters. Source: Getty

“It's more likely and it's plausible to think that the reason for the increase in cases is because of the reduced social mixing and a reduced exposure to common infections in the last few years during the Covid pandemic. So far the data we have in Queensland is that we're probably back to a pre-pandemic baseline of numbers of invasive group A strep.”

Parents urged to watch out for symptoms

Found in the throat and on the skin, Group A streptococcus is a bacterium that can cause a sore, or strep, throat, and skin infections like impetigo and cellulitis.

While Dr Irwin says it is “one of the most common bacterial infections that children will experience” and, for the most part, “causes mild or self-limiting infections”, it can be serious.

Two people hold hands in a hospital bed.
Whilst Dr Irwin says most children with Strep A have mild infections, the disease can have serious consequences. Source: Getty

“Group A streptococcus can cause a range of inflammatory syndromes, like scarlet fever or rheumatic fever, and we should recognise that we have in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia some of the highest rates of group A strep related complications anywhere in the world,” he said.

“The most severe presentations of Group A streptococcus include pneumonia and bone and joint infections, and at their most severe, sepsis.”

He added that signs of a severe disease include difficulty breathing, drowsiness, unexplained pain and cool and blotchy skin.

“Very simply, if parents see an illness in their child that just looks different to other illnesses that many children will have experienced in the past, then that would be reasonable enough to seek medical advice.”

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