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A virulent strain of streptococcus is spreading rapidly across the nation and has already resulted in the loss of five lives in New Brunswick within the first month of 2024.
Among those lost is Dan Wetmore of Riverview, N.B., whose family now advocates for widespread testing for invasive Group A strep, as reported by Global News. Wetmore, aged 49, died on Jan. 19, just a week after he began exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
His widow, Kim Wetmore, described his struggle from the bacterial illness as being sick with "a sore throat, inflamed sinuses and frequent vomiting" before he was admitted to the Moncton Hospital, adding his condition deteriorated quickly. "He had his hands on the side of the railing on his bed. Just trying to raise himself off the bed because his body hurt so bad. He said it was the hardest thing he's ever had to do in his entire life," Wetmore told Global News. "You think... if he had been (at the hospital) sooner, maybe he'd still be here."
She and their son Zach are now encouraging prompt testing for anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms, to detect strep A early enough.
While invasive group A streptococcus (iGAS) most often affects children and seniors, anyone can have it.
Canada is seeing a record number of cases of invasive Group A strep. Ontario's data indicates around three-quarters of people with a confirmed case of iGAS end up going to the hospital, while Quebec reported a 55 per cent rise in cases last year over pre-pandemic levels.
But what signs should Canadians be look out for when it comes to iGAS, and when should you worry?Here's what you need to know.
What is invasive group A streptococcus (iGAS)?
Group A streptococcus (GAS) is a common bacterial infection that grows inside the nose, throat and sometimes on the skin. It most often affects children and seniors, but anyone can have it.
Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Anna Banerji said it often causes strep throat and sinus infections, and it can escalate and cause issues like ulcers.
But, if it goes into a person's bloodstream it can serious conditions, including meningitis and toxic shock syndrome — which could become fatal.
Group A streptococcus is common, and "is more severe than other types of streptococcus," Banerji told Yahoo Canada. But the invasive type — one that enters the bloodstream — is less common and causing concern.
These are the symptoms you can look out for:
For non-invasive infection with Group A streptococcus:
sore, painful throat
mild skin infections, such as: rashes, sores, bumps, blisters
For invasive Group A streptococcal infections:
trouble breathing (pneumonia)
breakdown of the skin and connective tissues (necrotizing fasciitis)
fever, unsafe drop in blood pressure, vomiting and diarrhea (toxic shock syndrome)
Why are we seeing a spike in invasive strep cases?
Banerji explained there are several reasons for the increasing case numbers of iGAS — including some "post-pandemic" behaviours.
"We were all practicing public health measures before with masking and strep, that's in the throat, is generally spread by droplets. If you use masking, then you reduce the spread," she said.
"In the fall, when the kids when back to school and took off their masks, a lot of viruses and bacteria spread." But, Banerji said many kids also hadn't been exposed to strep previously because of the pandemic restrictions, and "didn't have a lot of immunity." That's why younger patients tend to have more severe strep.
The expert said while strep lives in the throat, any virus infection could cause strep symptoms to develop.
"Because we had a horrible viral season this fall, we also saw more strep than usual."
John McCormick, a professor of immunology and epidemiology at Western University, says research now shows about 10 per cent of children will carry strep in their throats without any problems. In the "rare" case of invasive strep, the bacteria can become "quite dangerous."
Numbers are increasing and "it happen to essentially anybody."
McCormick echoed Banerji in saying the lack of immunity in children is likely the reason behind the recent spike. "When there's less transmission, there's less strep," he added.
Should Canadians worry about invasive strep?
Should the average person worry about the recent spike in cases? McCormick said no, but added Canadians should stay informed.
"Mortality rates from invasive streptococcal disease... can be quite high," he said. "That would obviously be the worst consequence."
However, other severe consequences can include the need to remove tissue and even amputation, according to McCormick.
"In general, people should not be really that worried," he said. "But they should just be ... using common sense."
McCormick said if you or your loved one is experiencing what looks like strep throat, they should see a health care professional and get diagnosed.
If you have these types of symptoms, you shouldn't ignore them.John McCormick
"If they have strep throat, (parents) probably shouldn't be sending their kids to school. If you have any kind of an open cut or sore, you should be using normal hygienic practices," he explained.
"I don't think the average Canadian should lose sleep, cause we've just been through a major pandemic and it doesn't compare to (the strep increase)," she said. "If you are sick, stay home because you don't want it to spread," Banerji advised. "The main thing is trying to reduce spread."
For those who are diagnosed, her advice is to "start the antibiotics early."