Scientists surge ahead in fight against scarlet fever


By Sabrina Walker

In a world first, Queensland scientists have discovered a new, highly infectious strain of Group A Streptococcus bacteria, responsible for the recent global outbreak of childhood disease, scarlet fever.

Doctor Stephan Brouwer working in lab with Group A Streptococcus bacteria..

Doctor Stephan Brouwer working in lab with Group A Streptococcus bacteria. Credit: Doctor Amanda Cork

The disease has risen globally at an alarming rate, after almost being wiped out in the 1940s.

An initial outbreak in Hong Kong and China in 2011 has seen the scarlet fever infection rate rise fivefold worldwide, reaching the United Kingdom in 2014 and more recently, Australia.

Infectious disease researcher, Doctor Stephan Brouwer, said modern scarlet fever outbreaks are caused by supercharged bacterial clones of Group A Streptococcus.

“It became obvious that it’s not just one single bacterial strain, but rather clones that were linked to scarlet fever outbreaks,” Doctor Brouwer said.

Director of Australian Infectious Disease Research Centre at the University of Queensland, Professor Mark Walker, said the bacteria discovered is a modification of Group A Streptococcus that has been infected with a virus, changing the way the bacterium works.

“The virus has got in there and changed the way the bacterium works, like a computer virus infecting a computer and in this case the bacterial virus has made the bacterium more virulent and better able to cause scarlet fever,” Professor Walker said.

Doctor Amanda Cork working in lab with Group A Streptococcus bacteria.

Doctor Amanda Cork working in lab with Group A Streptococcus bacteria. Credit: Professor Mark Walker

Scientists are concerned the highly infectious bacterial strain has reached Australia, and Infectious disease researcher, Doctor Amanda Cork, said scarlet fever is not a reportable disease in Australia.

“So, we’re really relying on hospitals that we collaborate with, to notify us when cases come in of scarlet fever,” Doctor Cork said.

Doctor Brouwer said the research team is focused on establishing a network to monitor the spread of the disease in Australia and determine if cases are rising.

“We should record these cases in a national scale in Australia just to get a feeling how this whole scenario is developing,” Doctor Brouwer said.

Listen to Doctor Brouwer discuss how scarlet fever spreads and when he expects cases to rise.

Research lab at the University of Queensland, where scientists worked on scarlet fever discovery.

Research lab at the University of Queensland, where scientists worked on scarlet fever discovery. Credit: Professor Mark Walker

“We’ve certainly seen that in Queensland the number of cases is rising,” Professor Walker said.

He also said the bacteria discovered is an example of pathogens evolving.

“This is just another example of a pathogen that’s suddenly became better able to cause disease in humans,” Professor Walker said.

The researchers said this scarlet fever discovery underlines the importance of developing a vaccine for the highly infectious disease.

You can read more on the world first discovery in the published scientific report.

Listen to Sabrina Walker’s audio news story, with interviews from University of Queensland Researchers; Doctor Stephan Brouwer, Doctor Amanda Cork and Professor Mark Walker.