Classrooms become Strep A frontlines as A&Es back up and penicillin stocks slow

Children with colds, flu and Strep A isn't uncommon at this time of year, but the increased levels of sickness is and it's causing concern.  

Particularly in the North West of England. The region currently has the highest rates of Scarlet Fever in the country, the illness caused by the same bacteria that leads to invasive Group A Strep.

And the number of children with Strep A in hospitals this year is unusually high.

A five-year-old girl became the ninth to die recently, after contracting a Strep A infection.

At Alder Hey Children's hospital in Liverpool, the emergency department is packed.

Waiting times are advertised as five and a half hours, but one nurse tells me it's much longer than that.

In fact, the lead consultant for the Emergency Department, Dr Bimal Mehta, says the past two days have been their busiest on record. He told Sky News, the rise in Strep A cases is a worry.

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"We have seen our busiest days ever over the last few days here. Over the winter, we've seen a lot more Strep A and Scarlet Fever patients than we have over the last few years.

"We are just witnessing a lot more of it circulating in the population, particularly in the younger age group, than we normally do. And because we're seeing more of it, we're seeing a lot more at the severe end of the illness."

Doctors and scientists know a lot about Strep A already, many like Dr Mehta are warning the majority of cases will result in a mild cold and antibiotics will work to help tackle the infection.

But after a suggestion from the government that penicillin could be rolled out into classrooms with reported outbreaks - pharmacists are puzzled.

Strep A: Find out how many severe infections and scarlet fever cases are in your area

Not enough stocks to fill prescriptions

In Manchester, pharmacy director Zeshan Rehmani is urgently trying to source antibiotics for his "concerned parents".

He says he's running out, and it's unclear when he will get more.

"There's no drugs. Today, we haven't been able to get any penicillin in stock at all.

"So when we hear stories about possibility giving antibiotics to children in schools, it just shows how out of touch the department for health is with on the ground pharmacy."

He added: "Pharmacists across the country are thinking we haven't got enough penicillin to fill our prescriptions, let alone handing it out to schools."

Parents worried

But it's the classroom which is the front line of the Strep A infection.

It's there where children are catching the virus and in some instances becoming very sick.

At a primary school in Cheshire, the attendance is the lowest it's been all year.

Headteacher at Leighton Academy, Samantha Thompson, told us around 40 children are off sick with either Scarlet Fever or Strep A symptoms - her parents are worried.

She said: "Since October half-term we've seen all sorts of sickness, particularly the symptoms of Strep A, and it's a huge concern for us.

"The wellbeing and safety of our children is paramount, so it's really on us to make sure we're looking out for early signs and symptoms and reporting it to parents - but ultimately it has a huge impact on children's education."

The school received updated guidance from UK Health Security Agency, but Ms Thompson had already taken precautions by reintroducing sanitising and extra cleaning of classrooms to kill the virus.

For almost three years, COVID-19 dominated our lives, and it's often easy to forget other infectious disease that are still causing problems.

In the North West it's clear that Scarlet Fever and in turn Strep A is very prevalent and despite scientists' reassurances that most cases remain mild, many parents remain increasingly concerned.