Higher levels of strep A in UK could be due to Covid, says health chief

An early start to the strep A infections season in the UK could be a knock-on effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, a senior heath official has said.

At least six children have died with strep A infection since September, leading the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to issue a rare alert on Friday evening. On Monday, its chief medical adviser warned that infection rates were significantly higher than previously seen at this time of year.

“Firstly, I think that we’re seeing a lot of viral infections circulate at the moment and these bacterial infections can come as an addition on top. 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,” Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday.

“We also need to recognise that the measures that we’ve taken for the last couple of years to reduce Covid circulating will also reduce other infections circulating. And 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.”

Asked if this was due to lower-than-normal immunity levels caused by Covid measures, she said: “That’s one of the potential areas that we’re exploring. We expect that a certain amount of children will have these infections each year and, therefore, they will have a level of immunity. So we’re seeing more now than we have seen for the last two years where there were very, very low amounts of infection seen.”

Hopkins’ came as a worried father told the same programme his daughter was fighting for her life. Dean Burns, whose daughter Camila Rose is on a ventilator at Liverpool’s Alder Hey children’s hospital, said: “She’s really poorly, it’s devastating for us, as a family.”

Camila, four, went from dancing with her friends on a Friday night to feeling “a little bit under the weather on Saturday” and needing emergency care by Monday.

Strep A can cause a range of health issues, including the skin infection impetigo, strep throat and scarlet fever. The vast majority of infections are relatively mild, but the bacteria can also cause a life-threatening illness called invasive group A streptococcal (iGAS) disease.

Hopkins told Today that parents should be vigilant for a sore throat and fever that will not go away with normal painkilling treatments.

“Scarlet fever is characterised by a rash and [it] is not like a normal viral rashes. It feels like sandpaper on skin so [if] the child’s skin feels like sandpaper-rough rather than just a normal little bit of pinkness to the skin then that’s concerning and it could be scarlet fever.

“The other thing to do is look at their tongue. Again, in scarlet fever, we describe what’s called a strawberry tongue, where there’s a little bit of a white coating on it, and it looks like a strawberry is bright red. That’s a warning sign parents should look out for that.”

She added that unusual drowsiness, dehydration and not needing the toilet as much as usual were also particularly concerning symptoms.

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