CDC warns of rising strep throat infections among children

The CDC is investigating a rise in severe cases of strep throat among kids in the U.S. Several children’s hospitals across the country have reported an increase in strep cases since November, including in Colorado where two children died. Dr. Peter Hotez of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development joined Geoff Bennett to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The CDC is investigating a rise in severe cases of strep throat among kids in the U.S.

    Several children's hospitals across the country have reported an increase in strep cases since November, including in Colorado, where two children have died. The CDC has since issued an advisory warning of the surge of strep A among kids ages 5 through 15.

    For more on all this, I'm joined by Dr. Peter Hotez. He's the co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

    It's great to have you here.

    And, Dr. Hotez, the CDC investigating this strain of strep, but what makes it so severe?

    Dr. Peter Hotez, Baylor College of Medicine: Well, the problem is, it produces severe illness every year. Most parents know about it as a cause of strep throat, where pus appears on the tonsils, but it also can cause more invasive disease commonly, such as scarlet fever, what's called necrotizing fasciitis, toxic shock syndrome.

    And what the CDC is worried about is, we're seeing an uptick in the number of those invasive streptococcal infections. It could also lead to rheumatic fever. And it's not only happening in the United States. It's also happening in Europe and Australia. So there's a concern that we're seeing a worldwide increase in this illness.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As we mentioned, at least two children in the U.S. have died. It's shocking to think that strep throat could be fatal. How do you characterize the risk?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, I think it — what — the point is, we can treat it. The treatment is usually either oral amoxicillin or penicillin. We actually have an amoxicillin shortage right now. You can even get an intramuscular injection of what's called benzathine penicillin, even if you can't get amoxicillin.

    So the point is, these cases should be preventable with early diagnosis and treatment. Parents are not often aware of it, but if you see, in addition to your child struggling to swallow with high fever, that's a sign that there's severe strep throat that requires medical intervention. If you have a bright raised red rash all over the body, that's a sign.

    If you start seeing a cut or a bruise in your child, and you start seeing streaking red rash around it, that's another tipoff.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We are struggling with a season of horrible viruses. You have got strep, COVID, flu, RSV. Complicating things, pharmacists and parents are struggling to find children's pain and fever-reducing medications, surpassing what we saw at the peak of the pandemic.

    How long do you expect that particular problem, the availability of kids' pain medication, to persist?

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Well, in terms of the fever medication, remember, the fever is the body's natural response to these infectious agents. Kids do mount high fevers.

    So that's — it's really important that parents closely monitor it. But, of course, fevers can make kids uncomfortable, and so it's nice to treat it if you can. Hopefully, the supply chain management issues around these anti-fevers, anti-pain medications will start to subside fairly soon in the coming weeks.

    So, it's just a matter of getting through these next weeks. But remember, if your child does have high fever and appears ill you want to have, again, that low threshold for having that relationship with your pediatrician.

    And, by the way, Geoff, I'm recommending to parents that they have that relationship. Don't wait to your child is sick in the middle of the night to suddenly start scrambling and looking for a phone number, trying to figure out where you take your child in the middle of night. Have that plan worked out with your pediatrician ahead of time.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's good advice.

    Parents in Ohio have experienced another unexpected threat to their children's health. It's a measles outbreak, dozens of hospitalizations. Many of those children, as I understand it, are unvaccinated, many of them young.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Yes, that's right.

    Typically, we give the first measles vaccinations called MMR, measles, mumps, rubella, vaccine, towards the end of the first year of life. My understanding is, of the 80 plus cases, about more than 70, 75 have been unvaccinated.

    So this is, in many respects, a self-inflicted wound, that a lot of these cases or all of these cases could have been prevented had those kids receive their routine MMR vaccination. So, what I'm really worried about, Geoff, is, this is spillover from all the anti-vaccine activism we saw really take off around COVID-19 vaccines for adults.

    Remember, the numbers are horrific. An estimated 200,000 Americans needlessly lost their lives because they refused the COVID vaccine, even after vaccines became widely available, and it's happening because of a rise in what I call the anti-vaccine, anti-science aggression coming from activists.

    And now I think they're going to try to target all childhood immunizations. Measles is a deadly illness. In the year 2000, half-a-million kids — 500,000 kids died annually from measles. And now that number, we have brought down below 100,000. I'm worried about a reversal of that, not only in the United States, but globally.

    And it's just a reminder that measles is nothing to trifle with. It is a serious illness and is one of the leading causes of death for kids under the age of 5.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Dr. Peter Hotez, thanks, as always, for your time and for your insights. We appreciate it.

  • Dr. Peter Hotez:

    Thank you, Geoff.

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