PUBLISHED: 9:25 PM 30 Nov 2017

Age-Old Killer Rears Ugly Head, Scientists Scrambling For Answers As Crisis Grows Large

Researchers like Theresa Lamagni of Public Health England caution about the risks of scarlet fever.

Researchers like Theresa Lamagni of Public Health England caution about the risks of scarlet fever.

An age-old childhood killer has resurfaced in parts of England and Asia, and scientists are scrambling to figure out why. Scarlet fever killed many children at the beginning of the 1900s, and it is taking a toll once again. The disease, for the most part, was long forgotten, but recent cases signal a new epidemic. According to a recent research article. “…the magnitude of the recent upsurge is greater than any documented in the last century.”

An outbreak of scarlet fever is especially troubling because it can lead to death in young children. While it has been declining over the last two centuries, a recent surge in new cases is signaling the comeback of the bacteria. Scarlet fever is caused by the same bacteria that ends in strep throat. Group A Streptococcus pyogenes is highly contagious.

While outbreaks are currently being seen in both East Asia and England, they seem to be following a different path. The number of cases in East Asia has been on a steady rise since 2009. The cases in England seemed to suddenly spike with no previous real growth.

In 2013, England had 4,700 documented cases of scarlet fever. A staggering 15,637 cases were reported in 2014. This is more than triple the number of cases in just one year. The numbers grew to almost 20,000 in 2016. This is a fifty-year high for the United Kingdom.

Beyond the jump in the number of cases in England, officials are also worried about the increase in the number of cases that require being admitted to a hospital. Hospital stays tied to scarlet fever jumped from 703 in 2013 to 1,300 in 2016.

At the current time, there is no definite cause of the outbreak, although there are some theories. According to a report about the surge in the number of cases of scarlet fever:

“Investigators are looking at such possibilities as a change in human immune status, environmental causes and even the disease traveling from Asia to England, although evidence for that is slight. Though the cases in the United Kingdom came from at least three known strains, only one of those was also seen in Hong Kong, and only in few cases.”

As a result of improved antibiotics, the disease is treatable. The bacteria can be destroyed via the same drug regimen that is used to treat strep throat. If it is left untreated, the bacteria can be deadly. This is especially true for those who are most likely to get scarlet fever, children under the age of 10.

Even with treatment, there can be complications tied to the bacteria. This may include kidney damage via Bright’s disease. There is also a risk of scarlet fever turning into rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever is described as “…an autoimmune disease that affects the heart, joins, skin and brain.”

Both Bright’s disease and rheumatic fever can lead to long-term damage. Scarlet fever was the leading cause of heart disease in adults before the widespread availability of antibiotics.

Because the bacteria can lead to long-term damage, parents are advised to be on the lookout for early warning signs of the disease. This may include what doctors call the “strawberry tongue.” This is when the child’s tongue becomes more red and grainy than usual. The inside of the mouth and throat will often also have a white coating.

A sore throat and a fever of 101 or higher is also seen early on. There are also usually swollen glands, body aches, and possible vomiting. Once the temperature starts, there is also often a visible sign of a rash. This starts on the face, neck, and chest. It will continue to spread to other parts of the body including the back. This outbreak will be warm to the touch and look a lot like a sunburn.

One of the reasons scarlet fever is so worrisome is that fact that it is easy to spread from one person to the next. The bacteria can hide on things like doorknobs, plates and eating utensils for several hours. It can also travel in tiny droplets when a sick person coughs or sneezes.

The ease in which the bacteria travels is one reason in the early 1900s that most with scarlet fever were isolated. They were kept away from the public, and their bedding was destroyed to avoid spreading the bacteria.