GOVERNMENT public health experts yesterday warned laboratories throughout the country to be on the alert for the microbial infection that has killed three people in Gloucestershire.
The alert came on the same day that doctors in the county said the outbreak was likely to be a 'statistical' coincidence which posed no major health risk. The condition of the latest victim, a mother of two, aged 45, from Stroud, is stable but critical in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital.
Since February there have been six definite cases of infection with the bacterium, Group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus, in a 25-mile wide area of Gloucestershire. The bacterium is usually harmless and doctors are baffled as to why it has become so virulent.
At least five of those infected developed a gangrene-like illness, known as necrotising fasciitis, which rapidly destroys fat and muscle and can kill within 24 hours. The number of cases nationally is fewer than 10 a year, occurring sporadically.
Last night it emerged that another patient, Terry Bowden, 39, a scaffolder, of Beckenham Hill, Kent, died from the bacterium on 25 January 36 hours after being admitted to Lewisham Hospital, south London, complaining of leg pains.
Almost two weeks after the Gloucestershire outbreak was first reported in the Independent, the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre at Colindale, north London, which co-ordinates information nationally, yesterday formally warned all public health departments of the situation.
The centre also urgently requested notification of any cases of severe invasive streptococcal infection, particularly necrotising fasciitis.
Dr Norman Begg, of the CDSC, said the alert was a 'routine procedure in this kind of investigation'. However, a senior microbiologist, who asked not to be named, said the alert was 'unusual but not unheard of'.
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