Scarlet fever at 50-year high

Child with scarlet fever

Cases of scarlet fever have hit the highest level in England for 50 years, according to Public Health England.

Parents are being urged to remain vigilant following a surge in cases of scarlet fever.

Since September last year, 20,372 cases of scarlet fever have been reported, compared to an average of 9,461 for the same period over the last 5 years, according to Public Health England. There were 1,180 cases reported in the last week alone.

The majority of cases – 89% – have been reported in under-10s, and parents have been warned to consult their GP if their child has symptoms including a pink-red rash, a sore throat, a headache or a fever.

Dr Theresa Lamagni, of Public Health England, said: “Whilst current rates are nowhere near those seen in the early 1900s, the magnitude of the recent upsurge is greater than any documented in the last century."

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is a very contagious, seasonal bacterial illness. Although it's known for its distinctive, pinky-red rash and 'strawberry' tongue, earlier symptoms to look out for are a high temperature (above 38.3C), flushed cheeks and a swollen tongue. The rash normally appears two days after these symptoms and tends to start on the chest and stomach before spreading to other parts of the body, such as the ears and neck. The rash often feels like sandpaper and may be itchy.

Scarlet fever was a common cause of death in the Victorian era, but these days a mild case can be easily treated with antibiotics. However, prompt treatment remains essential to prevent both the spread of the disease and the risk of further complications, such as pneumonia and liver damage.

It's also important to be aware that your child will still be infectious for 24 hours after antibiotic treatment has begun, and should not attend school or nursery during this time. There's no evidence to suggest that catching scarlet fever when pregnant will put your baby at risk, but it's better to tell the doctors and midwives in charge of your care if you've been in contact with someone who has it.

The disease has been on the rise since 2014, but experts have so far failed to find a reason for the recent increase.