Hong Kong scientists are warning of a deadly new strain of scarlet fever that has killed two children and infected dozens more in an outbreak across the city.
Mainland China and the former Portuguese colony of Macau have also seen a surge in scarlet fever cases, which health officials say is linked to a mutation of the bacteria that causes the disease. Experts are warning that the scarlet fever outbreak may yet worsen.
Hong Kong, a densely populated city of 7 million people, is particularly nervous about infections diseases. The SARS outbreak in 2003, which began in southern China, killed 300 people in the city.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong closed a kindergarten in the Sha Tin area for a week after initial tests showed that a five-year-old boy may have died from scarlet fever.
A 7-year-old girl has also died scarlet fever in recent weeks, the first deaths in Hong Kong from the disease in a decade, Deutsche Presse-Agentur reports.
University of Hong Kong scientists say they have discovered a mutation of the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria that causes scarlet fever, making it more contagious and deadly, Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK reports.
The new strain was resistant to some of the antibiotics traditionally used to tackle it, resulting in an unusually widespread and aggressive outbreak in Hong Kong, the scientists said.
Scarlet fever mainly affects children between the ages of 2 and 8. A record 419 cases have been reported so far in 2011 — about three times as many as the total number last year in Hong Kong. There were 142 cases in the first half of June.
"We notice that this is a regional phenomenon not limited to Hong Kong. We found an increased scarlet fever incident is also found in mainland China as well as Macau, so that points to something of a more diverse, geographical circulation,” Thomas Tsang, controller of the Hong Kong Centre for Health Protection, told Channel News Asia.
Dr. Tse Hung-hing of the Hong Kong Medical Association told DPA that doctors should use alternative antibiotics to tackle scarlet fever.
Scarlet fever is named after the strawberry rash it leaves on victims' tongues. Other symptoms include a fever, sore throat and rash on the trunk, neck and limbs.
The illness is usually clinically mild but can be complicated by shock, heart and kidney diseases.
While scarlet fever was once a very serious childhood killer, it is now is easily treatable and rarely fatal in developed countries.