Thousands of children could be kept off school this week amid heightened fears about a potentially deadly winter bug.
Parents of children at schools where pupils have died of Strep A, which can cause scarlet fever and more serious diseases, have already vowed to keep their sons and daughters at home. And many more could follow suit, even at schools without confirmed infections.
Over the past few weeks, seven school-aged children have died of complications after contracting Strep A, a relatively common bacteria which usually causes only mild symptoms such as a sore throat.
A 12-year-old boy is the first secondary school pupil to die in the current outbreak. He is reported to have been a Year 8 pupil at fee-paying Colfe’s School in Lewisham, South-East London.
Four-year-old Muhammad Ibrahim Ali, of High Wycombe, died after contracting Strep A and suffering a cardiac arrest.
And four-year-old Camila Rose Burns from Bolton, Lancashire, is fighting for her life in Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.
One of those who died was a six-year-old child, believed to be a girl, at Ashford Church of England Primary School in Surrey.
Last week teachers at nearby Echelford Primary School, also in Ashford, wrote to parents confirming two children had been infected.
They said they had been advised by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) that ‘children should continue to attend school as normal and parents/carers should not be overly alarmed’.
They added: ‘We would like to reiterate that if well, it is safe for children to attend school as normal.’ But parents have said they are so worried about the bug, which can be spread easily, that they will be keeping children at home.
The UKHSA said last night it was up to local health protection teams to decide whether parents of children at schools where there have been confirmed infections should be advised to keep them at home.
These teams would make the decision ‘on a case-by-case basis’, a spokesman said.
No affected school has yet said healthy children should stay at home. According to information published by UKHSA, children with scarlet fever – where Strep A causes a sandpaper-type rash – should be kept at home.
It states: ‘Scarlet fever is highly infectious and is spread by close contact with someone carrying the bacteria. Coughing, sneezing, singing and talking may spread respiratory droplets from an infected person to someone close by.
‘Droplets . . . may also contaminate hands, eating and drinking utensils, toys or other items.’ It concludes: ‘Exclusion [from school] is recommended.’
But there is no advice on whether children with a sore throat – which is potentially an early warning sign of Strep A but could just signify a cold – should be kept at home.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, infectious diseases paediatrician Professor Beate Kampmann said Strep A caused ‘an asymptomatic infection in the majority of people, then there is a sore throat, then scarlet fever, and in a very, very small minority will there be invasive Strep A’. She said children with a fever should be kept off school.
She said: ‘It starts off with a high fever, very sore throat and very red tongue . .. eventually developing a rash which feels a bit like sandpaper.
‘The rash starts in the elbows and behind the neck. It tends to then peel after about ten days.’
Most children will recover of their own accord but if a child deteriorates so they are ‘not eating, drinking, being quite flat and lethargic’ parents should call 111 or a doctor, she said. Antibiotics almost always help clear the infection if given soon enough.
Last night Camila’s father Dean urged parents who suspected their child might have the bug to take them to a doctor immediately. He said: ‘Any doubts, if they don’t look right, just scoop them up and take them. Get them checked out rapid.’
He said Camila was showing signs of improvement but added she was ‘nowhere near out of the woods’ and that ‘anything could take her back the other way’.