Following the deaths of nine young children and an increase in cases, health officials are probing Strep A infections.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reported an increase in rare invasive Group A strep this year, mainly in youngsters under the age of 10, as it announced children at primary schools affected by the outbreak are to be given antibiotics as a prevention measure.
Local health professionals will be authorised to administer penicillin or an alternative antibiotic to all children in a year group affected by the infection, even if they do not show symptoms.
Strep A, which refers to Group A Streptococcus (GAS), is the name given to a type of bacteria sometimes found in the throat or on the skin. It usually causes mild illnesses such as a sore throat, but can cause other, more severe infections such as pneumonia and scarlet fever.
But even though young children are the centre of the present attention, can adults contract Strep A too? Here is everything you need to know.
What is Strep A?
Group A Streptococcus (GAS), sometimes known as "Strep A," is a type of bacteria that can sometimes be found on the skin or in the throat. It typically results in minor ailments like sore throats, but it can sometimes bring on more serious infections like pneumonia and scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever was a highly serious illness during the Victorian period, but in the present era, most instances are mild and quickly treated with medication.
The disease has made a comeback in recent years, with the number of cases in England reaching a 50-year high in 2016 - when 17,000 infections were reported - and continuing to grow in each year thereafter, according to official estimates in 2020.
The government emphasises that although Strep A is highly contagious, it typically only causes minor infection. However, invasive Group A Streptococcal disease (iGAS), which is potentially fatal, is one of the most serious, albeit uncommon, GAS-related disorders.
It occurs when bacteria enters areas of the body like the blood, muscles or lungs, areas where bacteria is not typically present. It can result in streptococcal toxic shock syndrome, which is a fast-moving illness that damages organs like the kidneys, liver, and lungs, as well as necrotizing fasciitis, an infection of muscle and fat tissue.
For more on Strep A, including the symptoms to look out for, head to our dedicated explainer.
What causes bacteria to spread and how is it passed?
The most typical way for Strep A to spread is through direct contact with an infected person. The bacteria often lives in the nose and throat.
Infected people spread the bacteria through talking, coughing or sneezing, which produces respiratory droplets containing the bacteria. Strep A can then be contracted by breathing in respiratory droplets containing the bacteria.
When a person is sick, especially if they have “strep throat,” the risk of spreading the virus is greatest. People who contain the bacteria but show no symptoms are significantly less likely to spread it.
Although Strep A is very contagious, the government emphasises that it is usually a minor infection. But in rare cases, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and create a condition known as invasive Group A strep (iGAS). While relatively uncommon, invasive Group A strep cases have increased this year, particularly in youngsters under the age of ten.
Hand and respiratory hygiene are critical for preventing the spread of many viral illnesses. By educating your child how to properly wash their hands with soap for 20 seconds, use a tissue to capture coughs and sneezes, and stay away from others when they are sick, they can lower the chance of taking up or transmitting diseases.
Can adults catch Strep A?
Though the current focus is on rising cases within young children, adults can get Strep A too. Though the risk of it developing into scarlet fever can affect anyone, it remains more common in children than adults.
Parents of school-aged children and individuals who have frequent contact with children are at heightened risk for Scarlet Fever.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people who are exposed to group settings such as schools and care homes are also at a higher risk.