A five-year-old child at a Belfast primary school, where a severe case of Strep A was reported last week, has died.
Parents of the youngest pupils at Black Mountain Primary School received a letter from the Public Health Agency on Friday to tell them a pupil had been diagnosed with a severe form of Strep A.
On Tuesday morning, the school spoke of its “tragic loss” and said “the thoughts of the entire school are with the pupil’s family and friends at this difficult time”.
It said in a statement: “To assist in supporting our pupils and staff at this sad time, additional trained staff from the Education Authority Critical Incident Response Team have been engaged and will be providing support to the school.
“A letter has been sent by the school to parents, informing them of our tragic loss and providing information on the support services available through school for our children during this incredibly sad time.
“We recognise that this news may cause worry amongst our school community and we want to reassure parents that we continue to work closely with the Public Health Agency at this time.”
In Co Down, two children were admitted to hospital, a primary school principal said.
Michael Peacock, head of Brackenagh West Primary School Primary School, close to Kilkeel, said one child from his school remained in hospital on Tuesday.
He said 34 children out of 48 were off school that day.
“Every winter we will see quite a level of sickness at various stages, and over the last couple of weeks we have had that as usual, but we have noticed last week the numbers were probably higher than normal,” he told the BBC.
“Children were starting off with a sore stomach quite a lot, they were having a temperature, they were feeling unwell, aches and pains, in many cases it sounded a little bit like the flu, but on Monday morning we discovered that quite a number of children had confirmed cases of either Strep A or scarlet fever, it’s spreading quite quickly.
“At break time yesterday (Monday), I was told that two of our children had been hospitalised, so at that point I immediately contacted all of the parents, made them aware of our concerns that this was something that was potentially more serious.
“We still have a child in hospital today (Tuesday). I’ve been told that the child is on oxygen and is still quite poorly, and hasn’t been well since yesterday. We’re just praying for the child that he will be fine.”
Dr Philip Veal, a consultant at the Public Health Agency, said Strep A is circulating within the UK, including Northern Ireland.
“For the majority of people it will be an unpleasant infection that will resolve, but, sadly, as we have heard with the tragic news, it can lead occasionally to very severe illness,” he told the BBC.
“We are keen to communicate to parents and schools what to watch out for for scarlet fever, that is, a sore throat, a high fever – a temperature above 38 degrees – or the appearance of a red raised rash on the skin, sandpapery or leathery feel to it. If any of those develop in an adult or a child, we’re encouraging them to speak to their doctor for further advice.”
He said the proportion of serious illness so far is “broadly in line with what we have seen during previous spikes”, but said they will keep the data and surveillance under constant review to watch for any unexpected increases.
Eight children in Great Britain have died with a form of Strep A.
Strep A infections are usually mild and can be easily treated with antibiotics.
Illnesses caused by the Group A Strep bacteria include skin infection impetigo, scarlet fever and strep throat.
There has been a big leap in the number of scarlet fever cases.
Symptoms of scarlet fever include sore throat, headache and fever, along with a fine, pinkish or red body rash with a “sandpapery” feel.
On darker skin, the rash can be harder to see but will still feel “sandpapery”.
Strep A infections can develop into a more serious invasive Group A Strep (iGAS) infection – though this is rare.
Last week, the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland urged parents and carers to be aware of scarlet fever symptoms after an increase in the number of cases at schools and nurseries across the region.
It said this follows two years during the coronavirus pandemic when reported cases were lower than usual.
It said clusters of scarlet fever have been reported at schools and nurseries in Antrim, Belfast, Bangor and Craigavon.