Britain faces shortage of drug used to treat Strep A amid outbreak

Strep A: Health expert warns against ‘invasive’ bacterial infection

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The UK is facing a “very worrying” shortage of the main antibiotic used to treat group A Streptococcus — an outbreak of which this winter has already killed seven children. The prescription drug, amoxicillin, has been vanishing from pharmacy shelves amid a reported global shortage of raw ingredients, rising costs and supply chain issues. Paediatric infectious disease specialist Dr Nathalie MacDermott of King’s College London said: “Group A Streptococcus is a bacteria that can cause strep throat and scarlet fever, as well as skin infections.”

According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), incidence of scarlet fever is also much higher than is typically seen at this time of year. In fact, three weeks ago, officials logged 851 cases of the infection, compared to an average of 186 over previous years.

Common symptoms of the condition include headaches, fever and sore throat, accompanied by a fine pinkish or red rash on the body that has a sandpapery feel. Parents who suspect their child has contracted scarlet fever are encouraged to contact their GP or NHS 111.

Dr MacDermott added: “A small proportion of children with Group A Strep infection can develop an invasive infection where the bacteria enter the bloodstream and can cause sepsis or more deep-seated infections such as chest infections, bone and joint infections or abscesses.”

“These children can become unwell very quickly, so it is important for parents to watch out for signs that their child is becoming increasingly unwell.”

According to the UKHSA, invasive Group A Strep remains uncommon, but there has nevertheless been a significant increase in cases this year, particularly among children aged under 10. Specifically, this year has seen 2.3 cases per 100,000 kids aged one to four and 1.1 per 100,000 children aged five to nine — compared, respectively, to figures of just 0.5 and 0.3 at this time of year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest child to die after contracting the severe form of Strep A is understood to have been a 12-year-old boy from Lewisham, southeast London — the first secondary school student to have fallen victim to this year’s spike in cases.

Signs of invasive Group A Strep, Dr MacDermott explained, can include a persistently high temperature that won’t go down with normal measures, the child being irritable or difficult to wake, difficulty breathing, a rash that is spreading and doesn’t fade when pressed on, red and swollen joints and the child’s refusal to either walk or use a particular arm.

Dr MacDermott added: “Prompt treatment with antibiotics can manage these infections, but it is important they are recognised and treated quickly. Prompt treatment of Scarlet Fever and Strep throat also reduce the chances of a child developing invasive Group A Strep and reduce the chances of the infection spreading to other children at school or household members.”

It is recommended that parents keep their children at home for at least 24 hours after the commencement of antibiotic treatment to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.

At the moment, however, getting these antibiotics can prove a challenge in itself. Jen Pharo, 38, of Sandhurst in Berkshire — who is mother to two children — said that her local Tesco had not only run out of amoxicillin when she went looking for some for her daughter, but that they were unable to restock the drug.

She told the Sun: “They said they couldn’t order any more as their supplier had none. I did find some at my local chemist, but they were down to their last bottle.

“It’s alarming we can run out of such a basic medicine.”

According to Asda, meanwhile, supermarket pharmacies are aware of a “market shortage” of the antibiotic, although they presently “retain it in stock.”

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Dr Leyla Hannbeck — CEO of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies — said that the present shortage of amoxicillin, coming as it does when children are at a higher risk of contracting Strep A, is “very worrying”.

She told the Sun: “We have raised it numerous times with the Department of Health. They say there is no shortage, but we can see there is a shortage.”

In response, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We have well-established procedures to deal with medicine shortages and work closely with industry, the NHS and others to prevent shortages and resolve issues as soon as possible.”

According to the UKHSA, there is no evidence to suggest that a new strain of Group A Strep is circulating — with this year’s rise in cases being attributed to a combination of resumed social mixing and high amounts of circulating bacteria.

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