Scarlet fever was once a leading cause of death for children across the western world, but it was nearly eradicated thanks to antibiotics. Now recent outbreaks in the United Kingdom and North East Asia are raising alarms with public health officials.

New research by scientists at the University of Queensland (UQ), in collaboration with scientists around the world, has suggested the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria is growing stronger after being infected by viruses.

UQ Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre director Mark Walker co-authored a paper on the topic that was recently published in the journal, Nature Communications.

Professor Walker said they started looking into Streptococcus pyogenes after an outbreak in Asia in 2011 and then in the UK in 2014.

Between 2014 and 2018, the UK National Health Service reported a 68 per cent increase in the number of lab reports of pyogenic streptococci.

The viral infections created new strains that generate “superantigens” that appears to give the bacteria a way to gain access to the insides of the host’s cells that has never seen before among bacteria.

Co-author Professor Mark Walker and the team found a variety of Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria that had acquired “superantigen” toxins, forming new clones.

“The toxins would have been transferred into the bacterium when it was infected by viruses that carried the toxin genes,” Professor Walker said.

“We’ve shown that these acquired toxins allow Streptococcus pyogenes to better colonise its host, which likely allows it to out-compete other strains.

“These supercharged bacterial clones have been causing our modern scarlet fever outbreaks.

“The research team then removed the toxin genes from the clones causing scarlet fever, and these modified ‘knock-out’ clones were found to be less able to colonise in an animal model of infection.”

If there is good news to be had, it is that the robust response to the coronavirus has halted the outbreaks for the time being. However, the disease is likely to spread again once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

“But when social distancing eventually is relaxed, scarlet fever is likely to come back,” says Walker.

“Just like COVID-19, ultimately a vaccine will be critical for eradicating scarlet fever – one of history’s most pervasive and deadly childhood diseases.”

[Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]


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