If you’re a parent or caregiver of primary school children like me, you probably Googled this last week: “Signs and symptoms of Strep A”; “Parents are advised to pay attention to these key signs”; “Strep A cases in your area” and “The latest live news on Strep A.” And then there is the horribly tragic news that a ninth child in Belfast has died after contracting a serious form of the disease.
This morning I received a letter from the UK health and safety agency informing me of several reported cases of scarlet fever and impetigo at my children’s primary school in east London; both are caused by Group A streptococcus bacteria – the same strain that has caused some child deaths in severe cases.
To say I was worried would be an understatement: at least in the last few days, when both my children complained of sore throats and stomachaches; and symptoms of scarlet fever To involve sore throat, headache, fever, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms are common and also consistent with winter bugs that parents know to expect each year.
As soon as I read the latest news, I was filled with the desire to get both of my children out of the classroom; peeling them off and inspecting every inch of their body for a subtle red rash; running my fingertips over their skin to see if there are any patches that feel like “sandpaper”. In other words, I want to do what every parent and caregiver wants: to protect them from harm.
But panic doesn’t help anyone, we all know that. Children need routine and learning. Schools are conscious and cautious. The numbers involved in this current outbreak are still relatively small and the risks of death are low as the bacteria usually only causes mild illness – but this is no comfort to any of the bereaved families grieving the loss of a child. Their pain is indescribable.
Still, I’m surprised how little is talked about Strep A among the various school-related WhatsApp groups; How parents like me don’t openly express their concerns.
Perhaps in the wake of Covid, many caregivers are sure we know the exercise: our children have made it a routine to wash their hands for 20 seconds and know that they should report any symptoms when they are not feeling well. It also helped that the UK schools minister suggested that children in schools reporting Strep A infection could be given preventive antibiotics.
All this can and should be a comfort. But helplessness is the worst part of being a parent.
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Just a few weeks ago, I found myself calling an ambulance for my six-year-old son, who was having a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night. The ambulance never came – almost certainly due to pressure on the NHS and a pathetic lack of funding for an important public service. The last time this happened about six months ago, it took two hours for the ambulance to arrive. No wonder underpaid and overworked staff have drawn attention.
Knowing that I could do nothing but sit back and watch my son struggle for breath was one of the scariest (and stressful) times of my life. And it feels a bit like this: working as a journalist; as a parent; Every day I read about the nightmare faced by families affected by the increase in cases of severely invasive Strep A disease this season.
There is nothing we can do but be alert to the signs and remember all the hard lessons learned during Covid.