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What's the key to combating deadly invasive strep infections? Detection and treatment, says doctor

 Dr. Natalie Bridger is a pediatric and infectious diseases specialist at Eastern Health and an associate professor of pediatrics at Memorial University. She says the soaring cases of respiratory illness in children is nothing she's ever seen before as a healthcare professional.   (Peter Cowan/CBC - image credit)
Dr. Natalie Bridger is a pediatric and infectious diseases specialist at Eastern Health and an associate professor of pediatrics at Memorial University. She says the soaring cases of respiratory illness in children is nothing she's ever seen before as a healthcare professional. (Peter Cowan/CBC - image credit)

Dr. Natalie Bridger, a pediatric and infectious diseases specialist, says it's important to recognize the symptoms of group A strep so it can be detected and treated. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

There are a number of symptoms to watch out for in order to identify and treat a deadly disease that is seeing a spike in cases in Newfoundland and Labrador, says one doctor.

Last year cases of invasive group A streptococcal disease totalled 52, more than double any previous year in Newfoundland and Labrador. There were three deaths and it's part of a rising trend happening across Canada.

"It does carry with it a fairly significant rate of mortality and that's why early recognition and treatment is so important," said Dr. Natalie Bridger, pediatric infectious disease physician with Newfoundland and Labrador Health Services (NLHS).

Bridger said anyone can get this disease and advised that if someone gets very sick quickly, they might want to consider if the case could be group A strep.

"I mean, most severe infections are hardest on the people at the extremes of life, so the very old and the very young," she said.

One symptom to look out for is a full body rash that looks like a sunburn or sandpaper, she said.

As well, if a child isn't eating, is very sleepy, has trouble breathing, complains of severe pain in a limb or has had a fever for five days or more, they should get checked, she said.

When a child is not old enough to communicate, Bridger said, a medical issue can be harder to discern.

Group A strep bacteria is passed from person to person through close contact, and outbreaks usually happen in households or where people are in close quarters, like in military barracks and daycare centres, said Bridger.

More dangerous

Bridger said most people are familiar with strep throat, which comes with a sore throat and white patches to appear on the back of the tonsils. It's also a common illness in kids between five and 15 years old.

But this strain is more deadly than the typical strep throat, she explained.

"Sometimes when the group A strep bacteria gets into places in the body that are normally sterile — like the blood tissue in the lungs, some of the lining of the muscles called the fascia — it can cause severe disease. And that's when we call it invasive, when it gets into places where it's not normally found," she said.

This handout image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows an electron microscope image of Group A Streptococcus (orange) during phagocytic interaction with a human neutrophil (blue).  The same bacteria that cause simple strep throat sometimes trigger bloodstream or even flesh-eating infections instead, and over the years, dangerous cases have increased. Now researchers have uncovered how some strains of this bug evolved to become more aggressive.

Group A strep bacteria is passed from person to person through close contact. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/The Associated Press)

Bridger said it's more dangerous than the usual strain of strep because of a protein called M protein.

"The invasive nature of this type of strep causes the immune system to go completely out of whack. And so the bug gets in, starts to do its damage and then the immune system kind of overdoes the response," said Bridger.

"What happens then is that blood vessels get leaky and people start getting low blood pressure. And most times people have to go to the intensive care unit with this kind of infection."

Bridger said there is no vaccine for group A strep but it is sensitive to regular antibiotics.

"So good old penicillin still works like a charm against group A strep," she said.

She added it's important people are aware of the increased rates so that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals know to be on the lookout.

"Iif it's found quickly and treated quickly, the results can be very good."

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