Rapid Spread of Rare Flesh-Eating Bacteria Disease in Japan

Avatar of Divya Sharma

Japan is currently grappling with a surge in cases of a rare and potentially fatal disease known as Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS), often referred to as a “flesh-eating bacteria” infection. This alarming increase follows the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases reporting 977 cases as of June 2 this year. This number already surpasses the total of 941 cases documented for the entire previous year, indicating a swift and concerning rise in infections.

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STSS is caused by certain virulent strains of Group A Streptococcus (GAS). While GAS commonly results in mild illnesses such as sore throats and swelling in children, the strains responsible for STSS can lead to severe and life-threatening complications. Symptoms of this aggressive form include limb pain, swelling, fever, low blood pressure, tissue necrosis, respiratory distress, organ failure, and even death. Individuals over the age of 50 are particularly at risk of severe outcomes.

Professor Ken Kikuchi from Tokyo Women’s Medical University emphasized the rapid progression and high mortality rate of STSS, noting that “most deaths occur within 48 hours” of the onset of symptoms. He described how the swelling associated with the disease can spread from the foot to the knee in just a few hours, underscoring the need for immediate medical intervention.

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The rise in STSS cases is not limited to Japan. Several European countries have also reported increases in invasive group A streptococcus (iGAS) cases to the World Health Organization since late 2022. This trend highlights a broader, international public health concern as the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the potential for STSS cases to reach 2,500 by the end of the year, Professor Kikuchi warned of a “terrifying” mortality rate of around 30%. He stressed the importance of rigorous hand hygiene and proper care of open wounds to prevent infection. The GAS bacteria can be present in the intestines and easily transferred to other parts of the body, making cleanliness crucial in mitigating the spread of this deadly disease.

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In response to the outbreak, Hong Kong authorities have issued travel advisories for those planning to visit Japan. Travelers are urged to maintain high standards of personal hygiene and to be vigilant about any wounds, ensuring they are clean and covered. Medical professionals globally echo this advice, emphasizing that as international travel resumes, the public should take any sudden onset of fever or pain seriously and seek medical attention promptly. Thoroughly cleaning and covering any wounds or cuts is vital to prevent infection.

The rapid resurgence of STSS cases serves as a stark reminder of the importance of public health measures, even as societies move past the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the disease’s high fatality rate and swift progression, maintaining hygiene and being aware of the symptoms are crucial steps in protecting public health. As Japan and other countries respond to this new health challenge, the global community is reminded of the ongoing need for vigilance and care in the face of emerging infectious diseases.

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