At least 12 people in Essex have died after contracting a deadly bacterial infection and dozens more could be at risk as health chiefs admit they ‘have not yet been able to contain the situation’.
Figures show there have been 32 reported cases of invasive Group A streptococcus (iGAS) disease since the beginning of this year.
Cases were first recorded in Braintree earlier this year. However, they have since appeared in the Chelmsford and Maldon areas.
IGAS is a life-threatening infection caused by the Group A strep bacteria, which many people carry harmlessly on their skin.
The Mid Essex Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said it is working to contain the infection and that the risk of the general population catching it is low.
However, Dr Jorg Hoffman, deputy director of health protection for PHE East of England, told the BBC it was ‘a very serious situation’.
The Mid Essex Clinical Commissioning Group has received reports of 32 invasive Group A streptococcus infections in its area, with 12 patients dying (stock image of streptococcus)
He said: ‘This is still an ongoing outbreak. Unfortunately we have so far not been able to fully contain the situation.
‘Obviously we are hoping that the efforts of our colleagues in the NHS and provider organisations are now bearing some fruit and we will be able to contain the situation and prevent further cases from happening.
‘I cannot deny that there is still an ongoing risk until we can declare that this outbreak is over.’
‘Our thoughts are with the families of those patients who have died,’ said Mid Essex’s director of nursing, Rachel Hearn.
‘The NHS in Essex is working closely with Public Health England and other partners to manage this local incident.
‘Extra infection control measures have been put in place to prevent the infection spreading in the area.
‘The risk of contracting iGAS is very low for the vast majority of people and treatment with antibiotics is very effective if started early.’
Most of the cases so far have occurred in people who had been receiving healthcare at home or in a care home.
Most of the patients, who have yet to be publicly identified, had ‘chronic wounds’ which they were being treated for, the CCG said.
Streptococcus bacteria normally live on someone’s skin or in their throat and don’t cause serious illness.
WHAT IS iGAS?
Invasive Group A streptococcus (iGAS) disease happens when strep A bacteria cause an unusually severe infection.
The bacteria normally live on someone’s skin or in their throat and don’t cause serious illness, only relatively minor infections such as ‘strep throat’, scarlet fever or the skin condition impetigo.
However, strep A can cause serious and even life-threatening problems if they get into areas of the body which aren’t usually affected, such as the lungs, blood or muscles.
It may do this by travelling through an open wound such as an ulcer or cut.
If this happens, it can trigger iGAS disease.
Two of the most dangerous forms of iGAS are necrotising fasciitis and Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome.
The former is also known as a flesh-eating disease because it causes lumps of tissue and skin to die and turn black. Symptoms include red or purple skin, intense pain, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea and dark blotches on the skin which turn into blisters.
Toxic shock syndrome also causes feverishness, vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as a rash dizziness and confusion.
Both conditions can cause multiple organ failure and death.
They can cause relatively minor infections such as ‘strep throat’, scarlet fever or the skin condition impetigo.
However, strep A can cause serious and even life-threatening problems if they get into the lungs, blood or muscles.
It may do this by travelling through an open wound such as an ulcer or cut. If this happens, it can trigger iGAS disease.
Mike Bewick, independent chairman of Mid and South Essex sustainability and transformation partnership, said this was an unprecedented outbreak in the UK.
‘There has been a slowdown of cases so far but it is too early to say that we have completely contained it,’ he said, the BBC reports.
‘We have had two in the last two weeks but we don’t know if we have anymore as there is a lag time with testing.’
No details of the patients’ ages or where they died have been released, nor a timeline of when the infections and deaths happened.
In minutes from a meeting of the CCG, officials said there had been another case in Southend in February and one in Basildon last year, but they weren’t linked.
The minutes suggested, however, that the cases in Braintree, Chelmsford and Maldon – which are each between 10 and 15 miles away from one another – are linked.
They read: ‘The incidence was originally confined to the Braintree area, but unfortunately the cases have now spread to the Chelmsford and Maldon areas.’
The health board admitted it doesn’t know where the infection has come from or how it had spread, but said a full investigation has been launched.
Streptococcus A bacteria are common and usually live on people’s skin or in their throats without causing any illness.
Early signs of the deadly invasive form of infection are a high fever, severe muscle aches and tenderness, and redness at the site of a wound.
Public Health England figures show suspected cases of iGAS have almost tripled from 223 in 2013 to 664 reported in 2018.