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Strep A in the UK: Diseases kills nine children

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Nine children have died in the UK as a highly-contagious disease spreads among kids – and a lack of immunity because of Covid lockdowns is being blamed.

Downing Street has urged parents to be on alert for symptoms of Strep A after an unseasonal spike in cases of the bacterial infection.

There have been more cases than usual this year, particularly in children under the age of 10.

Most people who come into contact with the bacteria do not experience symptoms, but in severe cases it can develop into throat and skin infections, including potentially fatal conditions such as scarlet fever, flesh-eating necrotising fasciitis and toxic shock syndrome.

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at the UK Health Security Agency, said the body was “concerned” by the sudden increase in cases of Strep A, which is usually seen in spring rather than Britain’s winter.

“The numbers we are seeing each week are not as high as we would normally see at the peak of the season, but they are much higher than we have seen at this time of year for the last five years,” Dr Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“So we’re concerned, and concerned enough to ensure that we want to make the public aware of the signs and symptoms that they should watch out for, and to alert clinicians to prescribe antibiotics for these conditions.”

She added that the unwinding of restrictions that limited social mixing could be to blame for the disease’s rapid spread, as children’s immunity to diseases that they have not been exposed to is low.

“Firstly, we’re seeing a lot of viral infections circulate at the moment, and these bacterial infections can come as an addition on top,” she said.

“Secondly, we’re back to normal social mixing and the patterns of diseases that we’re seeing in the last number of months are out of sync with the normal seasons, as people mix back to normal and move around and pass infections on.

“We also have to recognise that the measures that we’ve taken for the last couple of years to reduce Covid circulating will also reduce the other infections circulating, so that means that as things get back to normal these traditional infections that we’ve seen for many years are circulating at great levels.”

Microbiologist Dr Simon Clarke, from the University of Reading, agreed, saying that a “lack of mixing” between children because of the Covid pandemic – which closed schools and nurseries – was likely to blame for the increase in cases.

“It strikes me that as we are seeing with flu at the moment, lack of mixing in kids may have caused a drop in population-wide immunity that could increase transmission, particularly in school age children,” he said.

A five-year-old girl from Belfast in Northern Ireland on Monday became the ninth child to die after contracting Strep A in recent weeks.

She was being treated in intensive care at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children but sadly passed away.

Children at Black Mountain Primary School, which the girl attended, have all been seen by a doctor and are being given a preventative course of antibiotics.

Four-year-old Muhammad Ibrahim Ali died last week after catching Strep A.

He attended Oakridge School and Nursery in High Wycombe, north west of London.

Muhammad’s devastated mother Shabana Kousar told Bucks Free Press: “The loss is great and nothing will replace that.

“He was very helpful around the house and quite adventurous, he loved exploring and enjoyed the forest school, his best day was a Monday and said how Monday was the best day of the week.

“He also had a very close bond with his dad. He was his best friend and went everywhere with him. He just wanted to be with him.”

The school said he was a “friendly boy who loved coming to Oakridge School”.

“He had lots of energy and was always active. He particularly loved being outdoors in forest school.

“He was kind and loved to help his friends. He was constantly smiling. We are one big family at Oakridge and will miss him terribly.”

Seven-year-old Hanna Roap, from Cardiff in Wales, started out with a mild cough but she suddenly deteriorated and died within 24 hours of falling ill.

Her “numb” father Hasan told the BBC that Hannah came home from school on November 24 feeling unwell.

He took his little girl to the doctor the next day but she was sent home with steroids, rather than antibiotics.

“My gut instinct is if she had antibiotics she would have been OK, but I’m not a medical professional, so I took what the GP said,” Mr Roap explained.

His wife called later that evening to tell him she had stopped moving. He rushed home from and attempted CPR, but she could not be saved.

Strep A is a bacteria usually found in the nose or throat. It can be carried without ever developing into an illness, however if it enters the bloodstream it can cause Group A strep.

It is spread to others through contact, coughing and sneezing and starts out as a high temperature, head ache and sore throat.

It can then develop into a red, bumpy rash on the chest which can spread to the neck and arms. Another common symptom is a swollen tongue.

Sufferers are treated with antibiotics. There is no vaccine.

Case numbers have nearly quintupled in some ages groups since before the Covid pandemic.

There were 0.5 cases of Strep A per 100,000 children aged one to four before the pandemic. That number is now 2.3 per 100,000.

The worrying developments have led Downing Street to warn parents to be on the lookout for symptoms of the disease.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman said: “We are seeing a higher number of cases of group A strep this year compared to usual.
“The bacteria we know causes a mild infection which is easily treated with antibiotics and in rare circumstances it can get into the bloodstream and cause serious illness.

“It is still uncommon but it’s important parents are on the lookout for symptoms.

“But the NHS is well prepared to deal with situations like this, working with the UK Health Security Agency.”

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