Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier staff writer
Public health authorities have noted a concerning increase in the number of severe and potentially fatal invasive strep A infections among children in Europe and the United States. 30 children have died due to invasive strep infections in the United Kingdom. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about the increase last December, although total case numbers still remain in double digits in states reporting an increase.
These invasive group A strep infections are caused by the same bacteria that causes the symptoms associated with strep throat. According to DeLacy Rhodes, assistant professor of biology, while group A strep infection typically causes the mild discomfort associated with strep throat, infection becomes invasive when it moves to parts of the body outside of the throat.
“Streptococcus pyogenes, often just called group A strep, is the strep that’s responsible for strep throat. Invasive group A strep can cause things like bacteremia, where the bacteria are growing in the bloodstream,” Rhodes said. “Anytime you talk about a bacterial strain being invasive, that means it has moved out of the normal place where it causes infection.”
Christopher Hall, associate professor of biology, said that the invasive bacteria’s presence in the bloodstream makes the immune system much less effective at fighting the disease.
“The bloodstream is really not a good place to try to kill something. The immune system doesn’t work that well in the bloodstream,” Hall said. “Once that bacteria gets in the bloodstream and it’s just circulating around, it’s hard to hit a moving target.”
The causes of the recent increase in invasive strep cases are unclear. Rhodes said that although the bacteria have been shown to make a significantly higher amount of a particular toxin, there has been no proof that there is a new strain of the strep bacteria.
“They say so far they have no indication that it is [a new strain],” Rhodes said. “They look for changes to this M-gene, which results in changes to the M-protein, and that’s how they categorize the different strains. There is a strain that is much more common in the UK that we don’t see a lot here with different mutations which give it a much higher chance of producing this particular exotoxin. It is the dominant strain, but it’s been dominant since 2016.”
According to Hall, this recent rise has likely been caused by environmental factors. One possibility is that the safety precautions introduced in response to the covid-19 pandemic have weakened children’s immune systems.
“We’ve been protecting ourselves, so the immune systems haven’t been challenged,” Hall said. “If they’ve been living this relatively sterile lifestyle and suddenly they get exposed, they may well be more susceptible to it.”
Still, Hall added that more information is needed before any conclusive determinations can be made.
“We don’t have enough information to see why it is suddenly popping up,” Hall said. “Often it takes years to really sort out what was going on, but I’m guessing someone within six months will probably identify something that [the cases] have in common.”
Although the upswing in invasive strep A infections has been the subject of media attention and monitoring by health authorities, there is probably little cause for concern on Berry’s campus. Despite rumors of increased strep throat prevalence among Berry students, Melanie Merrin, assistant director of the health center, said that there have been no signs of a strep outbreak on campus.
“We on campus have not seen an increase in strep,” Merrin said. “I ran the numbers for this year and last year and our strep numbers are virtually identical. We’ve had one less this year than we had last year.”
According to Merrin, more people have visited the health center erroneously believing they have strep because they are unaware that many viral illnesses can also cause a sore throat, and that a cough is not a symptom of strep.
“A lot of people have the misconception that a sore throat means they have strep, and that’s just not the case,” Merrin said. “If you have a cough and you have congestion, that is a viral illness, and it is very unlikely that strep is the cause of your symptoms—it’s virtually impossible. Strep does not cause cough. A sore throat is a symptom that is associated with a cold.”
Additionally, children under ten have been the main group affected by the increase, so there is likely little cause for concern for most students. Merrin said that the transmission pattern of group A strep makes it much less likely to be spread between adults.
“Strep is contagious but not anywhere near as contagious as the flu and covid and measles,” Merrin said. “It can be spread if someone coughs directly on you, kissing, eating or drinking after one another. Small kids do that a lot more than you guys do, so that’s why it tends to pass through classrooms and things like that in younger children but not so much in adults.”
Mask wearing is an effective method of reducing transmission for those who may be infected. According to Rhodes, strep bacteria are still responsive to antibiotics, which reduces the chance of invasive infection if treatment is sought in a timely manner.
“There’s no anti-biotic resistance that has been suggested with this, so it can easily be taken care of with penicillin,” Rhodes said.
Students that do suspect that they’ve been infected with strep can go to the Ladd Center, where they can receive a test if their symptoms suggest a strep infection. According to Merrin, if a student tests positive, they will be prescribed antibiotics and given a twenty-four-hour class excuse, with no need for roommates to quarantine.
“We usually tell people that they’re contagious until they’ve been on antibiotics for 24 hours,” Merrin said. “Unless you and your roommate are eating after another or sharing utensils that haven’t been washed, your roommate’s probably not going to catch it.”