Health officials in the United Kingdom are warning parents to watch for symptoms after six children died after contracting a bacterial infection caused by a version of the disease known as Group A strep.
The deaths come as U.K. officials have seen a higher number of Group A streptococci cases in recent weeks. The bacteria can cause respiratory and skin infections, including strep throat, impetigo and scarlet fever. In rare cases, the bacteria can get into the bloodstream and cause serious illness, the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned Friday. This more severe version is known as invasive Group A strep (iGAS).
"(iGAS) is still uncommon; however, it is important that parents are on the lookout for symptoms and see a doctor as quickly as possible so that their child can be treated and we can stop the infection becoming serious," Dr. Colin Brown, deputy director of the UKHSA, said in a press release.
The UKHSA reported that there has been an "increase" in iGAS cases this year, especially in children under the age of 10. According to the BBC, five of the six children who died were from England, and all were under age 10. A girl from Wales, whose age has not been released, also died. No deaths have been confirmed in the other nations of the U.K.
In pre-pandemic seasons, as defined by the UKHSA as 2017 to 2019, there were on average just 0.5 cases per 100,000 children aged 1 to 4, and only 0.3 cases per 100,000 children aged 5 to 9.
This year, there were 2.3 cases per 100,000 children aged 1 to 4, and 1.1 cases per children aged 5 to 9.
The increase in Group A strep cases has also led to an increase in scarlet fever, a typically mild but very contagious illness. Recent data showed that in the 46th week of the year (in mid-November), there were 851 cases of scarlet fever reported in the U.K., compared to an average of just 186 cases in that same week in preceding years.
The UKHSA also said that investigators are looking into reports of a recent increase in lower respiratory tract Group A strep infections in children, which have caused severe illness.
Despite the growing rates of illness, the UKHSA said there is "no evidence that a new strain is circulating," and said the increase is "most likely related to high amounts of circulating bacteria and social mixing."
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