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Alert issued to parents after Strep A kills six children in past month

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 02/12/2022 Joe Pinkstone, Harriet Barber
Hanna Roap - Wales News Service © Wales News Service Hanna Roap - Wales News Service

Six children have died from a Strep A infection in the past month as officials warned that lockdown had left youngsters vulnerable to dangerous diseases.

Health chiefs issued an alert to parents on Friday after cases of severe Strep A and scarlet fever were shown to be nearly five times higher among children than before the Covid pandemic.

Parents have been told to look out for telltale symptoms such as their child having a worsening sore throat and a prickly red rash and to "see a doctor as quickly as possible" amid concern that the bacterial condition is circulating widely in schools.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said it was also investigating an increase in chest infections caused by Strep A over the past few weeks “which have caused severe illness”.

Six children have died from the severe infection known as invasive Group A Strep (iGAS) in the past month, including youngsters from Ealing, Wales, Surrey and High Wycombe. The parents of Hanna Roap, a seven-year-old girl from Penarth in Wales who died on November 25, said "our heart is broken into a million pieces".

Muhammad Ibrahim Ali © Provided by The Telegraph Muhammad Ibrahim Ali

Scientists said the decision to close schools and keep children apart during lockdown had left a wider pool of youngsters without immunity to the bacteria.

One Whitehall source told The Telegraph: “There may be a few more cases now than there would have been before Covid because all these kids didn't get any infection during the pandemic and therefore there are more kids around who haven’t had it.”

The surge in Strep A cases comes as the NHS faces crippling winter pressures with record waiting lists and patients struggling to access a face-to-face GP appointment.  Health officials fear the surge in infections may lead to further child deaths in the coming weeks.

Strep A is a very common bacterial infection which causes tonsillitis, also known as Strep throat, and can also lead to impetigo or scarlet fever. All Strep A infections can be treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin.

But in rare and the most severe cases the bacteria enters the bloodstream and leads to iGAS, which can trigger lethal sepsis, shock or meningitis.

UKHSA figures show that cases of iGAS in England have increased from 0.5 per 100,000 children aged one to four years old before the pandemic to 2.3 per 100,000 in recent weeks.

The figure for five to nine year olds has also increased from 0.3 per 100,000 to 1.1.

Cases of scarlet fever rose to 851 last week, a huge increase compared with the average of 186 cases before Covid.

A case in Surrey led to a localised outbreak among a handful of schools with one now closing communal water fountains.

Authorities have given out powerful preventative antibiotics to the teachers and other pupils at schools where a child has caught the infection, it is understood.

Last night Hanna's parents said their daughter might have survived if a GP had not prescribed her steroids instead of antibiotics.

“She did not get the right medication, if she had been given antibiotics it could have been potentially a different story,” said her father, Abul Roap, 37.

GPs have been instructed to limit their prescriptions of antibiotics as part of an NHS initiative to try to combat the rise in superbugs - bacteria that are resistant to drugs.

The BMA doctors union also resisted moves earlier this year to allow pharmacists to sell antibiotics over the counter, saying the medication is “a precious resource” and should only be given out “when absolutely necessary”.

The UKHSA has encouraged parents to wash hands properly with soap for 20 seconds, use a tissue to catch coughs and sneezes and to keep away from others when feeling unwell.

Parents are urged to contact the 111 service or a GP if their child’s appetite has changed dramatically, or if they have a fever or a dry nappy for over 12 hours. They should call 999 or go to A&E if their child is having difficulty breathing, their skin or lips turn blue, or if they are floppy or cannot stay awake.

Dr Colin Brown, deputy director of the UKHSA, said Strep A cases this year were higher than usual and that it was normally a mild infection which is easily treated with antibiotics.

He also encouraged parents to be on the lookout for signs of Strep A – a sore throat that worsens over time, headache, fever and a red rash which is rough to the touch – and to see a doctor “as soon as possible” to stop the infection getting worse.

“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,” Dr Brown said.

Most sore throats and colds are viral infections with it being estimated that 40 per cent of antibiotic prescriptions are for viruses against which the tablets are completely ineffective.

But currently GPs do not have access to any tests to tell them quickly, cheaply, and accurately if a patient is suffering with a viral or bacterial infection.

Jim O’Neil, the economist behind the seminal 2016 review into antimicrobial resistance, has described the situation as “slightly mad”.

During the last high season for invasive Group A Strep infection, in 2017/18, there were four deaths in children under 10.

The UKHSA said there was no evidence that a new strain was circulating, with the increase “most likely related to high amounts of circulating bacteria and social mixing”.

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