PARENTS are being urged to be on the lookout for signs of scarlet fever, after a sharp increase in the number of cases of the highly contagious disease.

Public Health England (PHE) has issued the warning after the numbers of new cases reported in the last six months rose four-fold compared to the average figures.

A total of 7,198 new cases have been reported nationwide since September last year, compared to an average of 1,836 cases between September and April in previous years. This year, 1,049 new cases were reported in the first week of April alone.

In the Wessex region, the most local figures available from Public Health England, 341 new cases have been reported since September last year.

Dr Theresa Lamagni, PHE’s head of streptococcal infection surveillance, said: “As scarlet fever cases continue to increase, PHE are working closely with healthcare professionals to assess the impact on the frequency of complications.

“We have a system in place to obtain a sample of strains from across the country to assess whether a new strain may have emerged.

“While we hope that the Easter school break will assist in breaking the chains of transmission in schools, reducing numbers of cases, we cannot assume or rely on this being the case.

“As such, our investigations and assessment of the impact of this extraordinary rise in scarlet fever continue.”

Scarlet fever is mainly a childhood disease and is most common between the ages of 2 and 8 years. It was once a very dangerous infection, but has now much less serious although complications can arise, particularly in those who remain untreated. There is currently no vaccine for scarlet fever.

Public Health England has now published guidance on how to manage scarlet fever outbreaks in schools, nurseries and other child-care settings to help protect vulnerable children and adults.

Dr Vanessa Saliba, PHE consultant Epidemiologist, said: “The guidance has been developed in response to the current high levels of scarlet fever to assist local health protection teams in controlling the spread of infection in schools and nurseries when an outbreak is identified.

“The guidelines are based on a rapid review of the evidence and expert advice and will be kept under review as new evidence emerges.”

These guidelines include resources such as template letters for parents, staff and GPs, highlighting signs and symptoms of scarlet fever and advising that children should be kept away from schools and taken to see their GP promptly.

PHE is also urging schools to promote good hand hygiene practices with daily routines for pupils and staff.