16 Jun 2024

Alarming surge in rare flesh-eating bacteria cases in Japan, how dangerous is it?

A rare and deadly "flesh-eating bacteria" disease, known as streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS), is spreading in Japan after the country relaxed its Covid-era restrictions. 

By June 2, 2024, STSS cases had reached 977, surpassing the previous record of 941 cases reported for the entire last year, according to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, which has tracked the disease since 1999. If the current infection rate persists, Japan could see around 2,500 cases this year compared to 941 in 2023.

Some strains can lead to severe symptoms 

Group A Streptococcus (GAS) typically causes mild illnesses like "strep throat," characterized by swelling and sore throat in children. However, some strains can lead to severe and rapidly developing symptoms such as limb pain and swelling, fever, low blood pressure, necrosis, breathing problems, organ failure, and death. People over 50 are particularly susceptible to this disease.

"Most deaths occur within 48 hours," explained Ken Kikuchi, a professor specializing in infectious diseases at Tokyo Women's Medical University. "When a patient first notices foot swelling in the morning, it can progress to the knee by noon, leading to potential fatality within 48 hours."

Several other countries have witnessed recent outbreaks

Several other countries have witnessed recent outbreaks. Towards the end of 2022, at least five European nations notified the World Health Organization of a surge in cases of invasive group A streptococcus (iGAS) disease, including STSS. The WHO noted that the increase in cases followed the easing of Covid restrictions.

If the current infection rate persists, Japan could see around 2,500 cases this year, with a concerning mortality rate of 30%, as highlighted by Kikuchi.

Kikuchi emphasized the importance of practicing good hand hygiene and promptly treating any open wounds. He mentioned that individuals might harbor GAS in their intestines, potentially leading to contamination of hands through fecal matter.

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