Strep right up: understanding the health news

Image of child being examined by doctor, for strep.
  19 March 2023  Star Weekly   

This article was first published in Star Weekly – Brimbank North West on 18 March 2023.

Written by Christopher Carter, CEO, NWMPHN

You may have seen some news stories lately about young children around the world getting sick in increasing numbers from something called “strep A”.

These stories are scary – but are they true? How worried do parents need to be?

Well, it’s a complex situation, and, to quote an old advertising campaign, we should be alert, but not alarmed.

First of all, it’s important to realise that “strep A” is a shorthand term for a bacteria species called group A Streptococcus. It is very, very common.

It can cause many different infections in kids, such as strep throat, scarlet fever and impetigo. Unless there are complicating factors (and we’ll get to those because they are very important) these conditions usually can be managed by your local GP.

In some rare cases, however, strep bacteria enter the body (not necessarily through the throat), and may cause something called invasive group A streptococcal disease, or iGAS. This is very serious, and can result in seemingly healthy children getting rapidly ill and being admitted to intensive care in a matter of hours.

Cases of iGAS have been increasing in many parts of the world over the past few months. The cause of this is still unclear – lots of investigations are underway – but it’s important to remember that it is still, overall, highly uncommon.

If your child develops a mild sore throat, it doesn’t mean they will go on to develop more serious disease. The same applies with a scarlet fever rash.

So, what should you look out for? The early symptoms of iGAS are identical to many other illnesses, especially in young children. They include sudden drowsiness, fever, lack of alertness, and the inability to walk.

If these serious symptoms are present, whatever cause is eventually identified, you need to seek hospital help right away. The ambulance paramedics, and the nurses and doctors at the nearest emergency department all know how to take best care of the patient, and initiate the care necessary.

Just now we said that most cases of strep throat and scarlet fever aren’t anything to really worry about – unless there are complicating factors present.

These factors change the picture. People of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Pacific or Māori heritage are at increased risk of serious outcomes from strep infections. Also, children who have a chronic medical condition or a compromised immune system are also at risk of severe illness. These children require more vigilant assessment and early treatment.

More information on managing rashes, fevers and lots of other childhood conditions are available in multiple languages on the website of the Royal Children’s Hospital. Go to and click on the yellow panel called “Kids health information”.