Killer bug may become even more virulent

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The Independent Online
A DEADLY bacterial infection may have claimed another victim yesterday, as a leading scientist warned that the microbe could be reverting to a more virulent form which was common more than 100 years ago.

The sixth person thought to have died of severe streptococcal disease since January was a woman who contracted the infection after giving birth by Caesarean section at St Peter's Hospital, Chertsey, Surrey.

She had symptoms of a gangrene-like illness, necrotising fasciitis, which has been linked with Group A beta- haemolytic streptococcus. She appeared to have been cured with antibiotics, but died suddenly yesterday morning in Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, south-west London, where she had been transferred for plastic surgery. A post- mortem report is expected later today.

As reports of more cases flooded in from around the country yesterday, Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said his research suggests streptococcal infections are becoming more virulent here as they have done in the United States.

The Group A beta-haemolytic produces toxins and enzymes which rapidly 'liquefy' fat and muscle tissue and may cause death within 24 hours. An average of 10 or less cases of gangrene are expected each year, and the current spate of cases is baffling microbiologists although Government scientists insist the cases are still 'within normal limits.'

In 1992 Professor Pennington feared a 'hot new strain' would appear here, and he set up a research project in Scotland to collect and assess the virulence of streptococcal Group A strains. The research is incomplete but 'there is a whiff of evidence' that the bacterium has become more virulent. 'Perhaps we should be improving our surveillance and maybe give these infections a higher priority in the future,' he said. But he added that previous data was imprecise and publicity about the infection, which is not notifiable to Government public health bodies, may now be revealing its true extent.

In Gloucestershire, where an unprecedented cluster of cases was first reported by the Independent earlier this month, a seventh patient remains 'stable but critical' in an isolation unit at Gloucestershire Royal Infirmary. There have been three deaths from the illness in Gloucestershire since February and two more in Essex and south London since the beginning of the year.

A spokesman for Queen Mary's Hospital, where the latest victim died, said last night: 'From a surgical point, the patient had been completely cured of the infection and was to be discharged home tomorrow. Sadly, she died suddenly today.' No futher details about the woman were being released at the request of her family.

The Public Health Laboratory Service, which is co-ordinating the national investigation of the infection, said last night there was no cause for public alarm. 'We have examined all indicators of streptococcal infection in the country and these are demonstrating no change in either numbers or patterns of infection.'