There are currently three times more cases of scarlet fever than usual, a senior health official has said.
The latest figures show that at least 19 children have now died across the UK from invasive Strep A disease.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said the vast majority of children affected have a mild illness and that an “open mind” is being kept as to why there is a spike in infections.
The latest figures show that at least 19 children have now died across the UK from invasive Strep A disease. Peter Byrne
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, she said: “The latest with scarlet fever and Strep A infections are that we’ve seen about just over 7,500 notifications of scarlet fever, and that’s probably an underestimate.
“We have a lot of reports coming in in the last few days so we expect it to be even higher.
“That’s about three times higher than the same time in a normal season. The last bad season we had in 2017 and 18.
“And in invasive Group A Strep cases, we are more than halfway through what we’d normally see in an average season.
“We’ve seen 111 cases in children aged one to four and 74 cases in children aged five to nine.”
Invasive group A strep (iGAS) is the most severe and unusual form of infection.
Meanwhile, Prof Hopkins said analysis shows that areas of the country where children had the flu nasal spray vaccine has had lower Group A strep infections compared with areas of the country that had not yet started to roll out the vaccine.
She said flu infections and other viral infections have a greater propensity to have a secondary bacterial infection on top, adding that children who normally catch influenza are at greater risk of other subsequent infections, including Group A streptococcus.
All children aged two and three are eligible for a flu nasal spray vaccine, which is being offered by GPs.
But only 37.4% of two-year-olds have received the vaccine so far, along with 39.5% of three-year-olds – well below the take-up reached at this point in previous winters, the latest data shows.
There are currently three times more cases of scarlet fever than usual, a senior health official has said. Peter Byrne
Prof Hopkins said children younger than school age can get the vaccine from their GP, while children in school can get the vaccine through the school vaccination service.
It is understood that health officials do not believe the number of scarlet fever infections has yet peaked, suggesting more deaths are likely.
Strep A infections such as scarlet fever and impetigo are treated with antibiotics, with penicillin among the most commonly used.
Scarlet fever symptoms are often flu-like, including a high temperature, a sore throat and swollen neck glands.
A rash appears 12 to 48 hours later, starting on the chest and stomach and then spreading.
A white coating also appears on the tongue which peels, leaving the tongue red, swollen and covered in little bumps (often called “strawberry tongue”).