Scarlet fever: The once deadly 19th-century disease is making a come back

COVID-19 is far from over and now an old childhood disease is increasing in numbers in England. It is considered highly contagious and in some cases quite dangerous.

Scarlet fever: The once deadly 19th-century disease is making a come back
© Pawel Wewiorski/Getty
Scarlet fever: The once deadly 19th-century disease is making a come back

According to The Sun, there have been scarlet fever outbreaks in various schools and kindergartens in northwest England. The disease was still one of the most common causes of death in young children at the beginning of the last century, but can now be treated well in most cases.

What is scarlet fever?

The Federal Centre for Health Education defines scarlet fever as:

A classic childhood disease that is one of the most common bacterial infectious diseases in this age group.

However, the fact that it is a disease that mainly affects children does not mean that adults are immune from infection.

Those affected often suffer from an acute skin rash (exanthema) due to an infection with A-streptococci, which predominantly only forms after one to three days after infection. Symptoms include a sore throat, which is often accompanied by difficulties in swallowing.

If the body temperature rises quite quickly and the child suffers from a so-called raspberry tongue (also known as strawberry tongue), these are further signs of possible infection with scarlet fever. At first, a white coating is deposited on the tongue, which comes off after a few days and causes the tongue to turn red and the papillae to swell considerably. In some cases, sufferers also complain of fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and ear and/or abdominal pain.

Disease from another time?

In the UK, the signs of scarlet fever seem to be particularly often misinterpreted by parents, as there is a widespread assumption that the disease dates back to the Victorian era and has long since been eradicated.

However, there is still no scarlet fever vaccine today and if you have already been infected it doesn't mean you cannot be infected again. In most cases, the consequences of the disease are simply less drastic today than in Queen Victoria's time.

Treatment of scarlet fever

The incubation period of scarlet fever is one to three days. If the GP confirms the suspicion of infection, a ten-day course of antibiotics (often penicillin) is usually given.

Dr Merav Kliner, deputy regional director of the UK Health Security Agency, emphasises in her interview with The Sun to follow the instructions of the medical staff exactly and gives advice to the readers on how to prevent a possible infection (which in most cases occurs via droplet infection):

It is important to take the antibiotics as directed by your GP to minimise the risk of complications.
To limit the spread of scarlet fever, it is important to practice good hygiene by washing hands with warm water and soap, not sharing drinking glasses or utensils, and covering the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Possible complications include pneumonia, meningitis, and heart or kidney damage.

Read more:

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Limited protection against reinfection

Incidentally, anyone who has once contracted scarlet fever has only limited protection against re-infection. The bacteria that cause the disease can produce various toxins, depending on their strain. Immunity is therefore only present with a certain strain of bacteria; other toxins from other strains of bacteria can trigger the disease again.

Cases in England have been in the tens of thousands per year for some time (in 2016, for example, over 19,000 infections were reported), but there is no talk of an epidemic, at least not yet.

This article was translated from Gentside DE.

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