Health officials abroad begin killer bug checks: The virulent flesh-eating bacterium has sparked concerns about cases in other countries. Liz Hunt reports

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The Independent Online
WHAT BEGAN as a cluster of cases of a rare illness in Gloucestershire grew into a worldwide health alert yesterday as officials in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada began checking on their own reports of the 'flesh-eating' bacterium.

Doctors in Norway said that they had seen an increase in a virulent version of a common bacterium, Group A streptococcus, which can trigger a gangrene-like illness.

In the first 19 weeks of the year, 116 cases had been reported, compared with just 50 in the same period last year, according to the National Institute of Public Health.

Viggo Hasseltvedt, a chief physician at the institute, told Reuters: 'This has become a serious health problem. We will probably see 200 incidents for the year as a whole.' The infection is believed to be spreading from Norway to Sweden, Finland and Denmark, according to Norwegian scientists. They believe that a 'slime capsule' may be protecting the bacterium from the body's defence system.

The Dutch health ministry said that 21 people had died of Group A streptococcal infections since 1921. A warning letter was re-issued to local health authorities yesterday.

Yesterday, Horst Seehofer, the German health minister, demanded an urgent report from the national health agency. Officials said there were between 30 and 40 cases of necrotising fasciitis annually, about half of them fatal.

Officials in New Zealand said that they had also recently treated patients with the disease, known there as 'galloping gangrene'.

In Iceland, two people have died from streptococcus A infections in the last three months. Dr Karl Kristinsson, a researcher at the National Hospital, said: 'We don't know if these are isolated incidents or part of a bigger wave . . . What seems to be happening is that the bacteria are increasing their ability to produce poison which makes it easier for them to infect and spread poison throughout the body.'

Between 1986 and 1988, a similar bacterium caused an unusual number of blood poisoning cases in Iceland and other Nordic countries.

In Belgium, six people have died of streptococcus A infections since last year, and there were another 11 cases, leading to a special research project being established last September.

In Britain, there were reports of more cases - deaths and survivors. Ralph Antrum, a consultant surgeon at Bradford Royal Infirmary, graphically described how the back muscles of a young woman were 'digested' after she contracted the infection.

The youngest victim, so far, is believed to be Ross Couchman, 2, from Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, who died in October last year of haemolytic streptococcal septicaemia, as a complication of chicken pox.