Dangerous Flesh-Eating Bacteria Spreads Rapidly in Japan

Japan is experiencing an alarming increase in cases of streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS), a rare but potentially deadly bacterial infection that has already surpassed last year’s total in the first six months of 2024. According to Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases, there have been 1,019 reported cases of STSS this year, with the disease claiming 77 lives so far.

The sharp rise in cases has drawn significant concern from health officials. STSS is caused by Group A Streptococcus (GAS) bacteria, which are commonly found in the throat and on the skin. While most GAS infections result in mild illnesses such as strep throat, the bacteria can sometimes invade deeper tissues and the bloodstream, leading to severe and life-threatening conditions like STSS.

“Streptococcal toxic shock syndrome occurs when GAS bacteria spread into the blood and deep tissues,” explained Céline Gounder, editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News and an infectious-disease specialist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital. “Blood, lung, and ‘flesh-eating’ infections are less common, but they can be deadly.”

Factors that increase the risk of contracting STSS include open wounds or sores, diabetes, and alcohol usage. The CDC also notes that recent surgeries, varicella virus infections such as chickenpox or shingles, and being over the age of 65 are significant risk factors. Approximately 30% of STSS patients do not survive the infection, making early detection and treatment critical.

STSS is closely associated with necrotizing fasciitis, a severe form of Group A Strep bacteria infection that destroys muscles, skin, and underlying tissues. Andrew Steer, director of infection, immunity, and global health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, highlighted the connection between the two conditions. “STSS is highly associated with necrotizing fasciitis, and they can co-occur,” Steer said.

Symptoms of STSS can appear suddenly and escalate rapidly. Initial signs include fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting. A sunburn-like rash may also develop early in the infection. Within 24 to 48 hours, the condition can worsen, leading to a drop in blood pressure, organ failure, and increased heart rate and breathing difficulties. Immediate medical attention is crucial to manage the infection and improve the chances of survival.

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