Rare Bacterial Infection Leaves at Least 12 Dead in U.K.
Originally published on the New York Times
At least 12 people in southeastern England have died after an outbreak of a rare bacterial infection, the British health authorities said on Wednesday.
A total of 32 people in the county of Essex have been confirmed to have contracted the infection, invasive Group A streptococcal disease, National Health Service officials said in a statement. Most of those affected had been receiving care for chronic wounds either at home or in nursing homes. The average age of the affected patients was 87.
The risk of contracting the invasive infection “is very low for the vast majority of people, and treatment with antibiotics is very effective if started early,” Rachel Hearn, director of nursing and quality at the Mid Essex Clinical Commissioning Group, said in the N.H.S. statement. “We will continue to work with our partners in Public Health England to investigate how this outbreak occurred and take every possible step to ensure our local community is protected.”
The bacteria, which cause diseases like scarlet fever or strep throat, are often carried harmlessly on the skin, and spread easily between people through contact. Infections are usually mild, but they can turn life-threatening if they enter the bloodstream. Those with immune systems that are compromised by old age or illness are at particular risk.
Invasive Group A infections are often fatal, Pete Monk, a professor of immunology at the University of Sheffield, said by email on Wednesday.
“However, it is quite difficult to become infected in the first place,” he said. “Any of us carry these organisms in our throats and noses with no ill effects, and it is not known why the bacteria become virulent in some cases.”
Thomas Evans, a professor of molecular microbiology at the University of Glasgow, said in an email on Wednesday that the outbreak was unusual. Britain, he added, has seen a high number of scarlet fever notifications in the past five years.
“Whether this translates directly into invasive Group A infections is not really known, but suggestive,” he said.
Ms. Hearn said that officials had implemented infection control measures in an effort to manage the outbreak in Essex. Such measures typically include giving precautionary antibiotic treatments to caregivers.
Medical professionals are required to report cases of invasive Group A streptococcal disease to public health officers in order to prevent the spread of infection. From September to May, 1,500 cases were reported across England and Wales, according to official figures. Ten percent of those affected were children.
In that report, Public Health England urged medical professionals to be vigilant. “Maintain a high index of suspicion in relevant patients as early recognition and prompt initiation of specific and supportive therapy” for patients with the infection “can be lifesaving,” the agency said.
Britain has been hit by a number of different, unrelated and equally localized infections in the past few months.
Two people died in January after they contracted a fungal infection caused by pigeon droppings in Glasgow, the BBC reported, while five patients’ deaths in England were linked to a listeria outbreak tied to sandwiches and salads, Public Health England said this month.
The Royal Cornwall Hospital closed three of its wards on Wednesday after an outbreak of norovirus, local news outlets reported.
But unrelated, localized infections are not uncommon, a spokeswoman for Public Health England said by phone on Wednesday.
“It is not unusual to have lots of infectious diseases,” she said. “These are not viral outbreaks.”