The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has revised its estimates of the number of scarlet fever cases in the country amid a “significant rise” in infections. The agency is now reporting a total of 27,486 suspected cases of the disease between September 12 and December 18 of this year.
On Tuesday, The Guardian reported that the case numbers were 128 percent higher than previously thought. Since then, new figures published by the UKHSA show that the estimates have gone up even more.
The news comes amid continuing fears of widespread infections with group A Streptococcus, also known as Strep A. The most common species in this group, Streptococcus pyogenes, causes scarlet fever and other diseases like strep throat – and, more seriously, invasive group A Strep (iGAS).
Strep A infections typically follow a seasonal pattern, with most cases of disease arising between February and April. The current rise in scarlet fever cases is, therefore, outside of this typical pattern. The last time there was a similarly bad season was during 2017-18 – across that whole year, the UKHSA recorded a total of 30,768 cases.
As a notifiable infectious disease, doctors in the UK are obliged to report all cases of scarlet fever to public health officials. Health services and pharmacies are currently under huge pressure to meet the increased demand for the antibiotics used to treat the disease, with some parents reporting difficulties in accessing penicillin in their local areas.
The typical symptoms of scarlet fever mirror those of the flu, and can include a fever, sore throat, and swollen glands in the neck. Between 12 and 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, the characteristic sandpapery rash will appear. The disease is more common in children than in adults. Penicillin-based antibiotics are an effective treatment, and UK pharmacies have reported being advised that they can prescribe alternative forms of these drugs in the case of temporary shortages.
The UKHSA stressed that, while scarlet fever may be much more widespread than previously thought, the more serious disease iGAS remains rare. Unlike scarlet fever, the majority of cases of iGAS occur in adults. Very sadly, there have been 94 deaths from iGAS in England so far this season, including 21 children under the age of 18.
“I understand how this large rise in scarlet fever and ‘strep throat’ may be concerning to parents,” said UKHSA Deputy Director Dr Colin Brown in a statement. However, "the condition can be easily treated with antibiotics and it is very rare that a child will go on to become more seriously ill.”
Dr Brown went on to say that any parent or caregiver concerned that a child may have scarlet fever or strep throat should seek medical advice.