B.C. health authorities are warning that group A strep was identified in four children who have died since mid-December, and the province is seeing unusually high levels of the disease this winter.
The warning comes a day after CBC News obtained data showing that the potentially fatal bacterial infection is being seen in record numbers across the country.
Invasive group A streptococcal infection kills roughly one in 10 people who contract it. In a Thursday statement, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) says it was detected alongside other viral respiratory illnesses in four child deaths over the last month.
“This includes two deaths previously reported by BCCDC, where group A streptococcus was identified alongside influenza,” reads the statement.
“BCCDC has also received reports of two deaths where group A streptococcus was identified alongside human metapneumovirus, another viral respiratory illness.”
Severe invasive group A strep infections happen when the common strep A bacteria spreads beyond the places it typically infects (such as the throat or skin) into sterile parts of the body, such as the bloodstream or the liquid around the brain, or into soft tissue, where it can cause necrotizing fasciitis, known as flesh-eating disease.
The BCCDC says there are no vaccines for strep A, but that residents can take steps to protect themselves against the illness.
These include regularly cleaning hands, getting immunized against COVID-19 and influenza, and cleaning wounds promptly.
In its statement, the centre provides a list of symptoms that indicate when parents should seek medical attention for their child, including persistent fever and a full-body rash.
The BCCDC says there has been a significant jump in group A strep cases since 2016, when 303 cases were reported across all of B.C. for a rate of 6.2 cases per 100,000 people. In 2023, there were 586 cases reported, a rate of 10.8 cases per 100,000 people.
Family doctor links severity to COVID-19
Dr. Susan Kuo, a Richmond-based family physician and member of Protect Our Province B.C., said the increase in severe infections in children is partly due to the impact of COVID-19 on people’s immune systems, especially those who have had repeat infections.
She says she’s had more patients with sore throats over the past few weeks, and some of them have needed antibiotics to treat strep.
“I’m also testing the throat with PCR to look for COVID,” she said. “Some of those patients have … strep throat, but they also have other viral infections.
“We’re seeing some COVID cases for sure, but there has been definitely some RSV in there last month and some influenza.”
Kuo says she’s seeing vaccine fatigue among parents when it comes to COVID-19 and flu shots, and urged residents to get their shots and seek medical attention as soon as they feel sick.
“In the case of something like strep, I think you do not want to put that off because if you got one of the more virulent strains, it could be potentially life threatening for your child,” she said.
“So please, we urge the public to get seen and don’t think it’s a cold, right? Get it checked out.”