Invasive strep spreading, antibiotic treatment supply inconsistent

Serious streptococcal infections are spreading quickly this winter and the most unusual spike is in children.

The numbers are still relatively small, but Minnesota state health officials have raised concerns.

Invasive strep has killed two kids in the U.S. this winter, and infections are becoming more common here in Minnesota. Doctors say that’s partly because it’s getting a platform from some other illnesses also seeing surges right now.

Strep throat works its way through several million Americans every year, usually hitting especially hard when allergy season comes around in the spring.

"This year it seems like it came a little early and we’ve had some warnings put out for being on the lookout for more invasive strep," said Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a Hennepin Healthcare pediatrician and pediatric infectious disease specialist.

Run-of-the-mill strep is a bacterial infection that usually just stays in your throat and causes pain. Some local pediatricians tell us almost half the kids they see in urgent care right now have it. However, invasive strep is when it spreads into other parts of your body, like your bloodstream. The symptoms are similar to strep, but more drastic or last longer.

"It’s sort of going to places it normally doesn’t live," said Dr. Maroushek.

The Minnesota Department of Health records a few hundred cases a year, and this year it’s affecting more kids than usual. The state has recorded 26 pediatric cases in the last three months compared to just three in the first three months of 2022.

Dr. Maroushek says the numbers may be so high because strep usually invades on the backs of other infections that are spreading in large numbers this winter — like COVID-19, the flu, and RSV.

"Strep becomes invasive often because you have respiratory viruses that allow it to get through inflamed tissue from the viruses," she said.

So she says the steps to prevent infection may sound familiar these days: Wash your hands, wear masks indoors, and get vaccinated for flu and COVID-19. Treatment is easy with antibiotics, but getting them can be a challenge right now.

"We’ve had antibiotic shortages of amoxicillin which is really our go-to," said Dr. Maroushek.

About 80% of pharmacies reported amoxicillin shortages in a late January survey by the National Community Pharmacists Association. But a lot of pharmacists say they’re getting creative and finding helpful alternatives.