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Japan warns of deadly 'flesh-eating' bacteria that could reach Spain
Health

Japan warns of deadly 'flesh-eating' bacteria that could reach Spain

Caused by various strains of streptococcus pyogenes, there were 941 deaths last year. In the first 80 days of 2024, the number of deaths is already close to 400, setting off health alarms in the Asian country

Doménico Chiappe

Madrid

Sunday, 24 March 2024, 07:52

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A wound on the limbs or a sneeze from a carrier is the gateway for a deadly "flesh-eating" bacteria that has claimed hundreds of lives in Japan, the country where its ravages have been documented. Entering the bloodstream or cerebrospinal fluid, it spreads through organs and causes multi-organ failure and necrosis of muscle tissue, the Japanese ministry of health reported. This disintegration of muscle leads to the pathogen being referred to as "flesh-eating".

It is fatal in a third of those diagnosed with "streptococcal toxic shock syndrome" (STSS). Caused by various strains of streptococcus pyogenes, there were 941 deaths last year. Most of them were people between the ages of 30 and 50. In the first 80 days of 2024, the number of deaths is already close to 400, setting off health alarms in the Asian country, which is expecting a record number of deaths.

Could it reach Spain?

"As it is an infectious agent, the chances of it spreading are high," said Patricia Guillem, professor of epidemiology at European University. "According to the WHO, since 2022 the numbers have been rising and countries such as France, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK have seen an increase in cases of invasive disease due to this type of (group A) streptococcus. Not only Japan has declared its concern, but also the United States," she said.

The first symptoms are not alarming: sore throat, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting and lethargy. When it worsens, it leads to nervous system collapse

The entry of the pathogen may also follow the pattern of other infectious diseases. "The routes of contagion, although still to be clarified with greater precision, point to sneezing, coughing or contact with wounds," Guillem pointed out. "Once the bacterium enters our body, it spreads deeply through internal tissues and blood, and can affect any organ or muscle."

However, a scenario such as that produced by diseases like Ebola is not expected. "This disease is not comparable to the transmissibility caused by the Ebola virus," Guillem said. "Moreover, the fact that it is a bacterium means that there is antibiotic treatment to be administered as soon as it is suspected," she added.

Masks, again

Early symptoms are not alarming: sore throat, fever, diarrhoea, vomiting and lethargy. As it worsens, people can suffer liver or kidney failure, respiratory distress, intravascular coagulation, soft tissue inflammation, skin rash and nervous system collapse, pointed out Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), which said it could not yet explain "the fulminant forms" with which the bacterium attacks. One hypothesis is that coronavirus infection makes patients more vulnerable. "The health care of those affected must be intensive under medical surveillance and administration of antibiotics and other drugs," Guillem said. "The recommended measures are extreme hand hygiene, avoidance of crowded places and the use of masks."

"It is unusual for countries like Japan to give this sort of warning," said a Spanish expert

The NIID decided to "spread information on the current situation" of this "highly fatal infectious disease characterised by a rapid and dramatic progression". "It is unusual for countries like Japan to give this sort of warning," Guillem said. "All countries had under-reported their cases of other infectious diseases during the pandemic. But there are noticeable increases.

Japanese public health officials suspect the increase in fatal cases is due to the arrival of a strain nine times more toxic from the UK. "Normally, the emergence of a new disease is multifactorial," Guillem said. "For example, climate change and human action on the ecosystem leads to exposure to new micro-organisms. The lethality of flesh-eating bacteria could add to this list."

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