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Invasive Strep Outbreak Kills 4 Alaska Natives

(CBSNews) ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Four Alaskans have died this year in an outbreak of invasive strep bacteria that has mostly affected the homeless and Alaska Natives in the state’s two largest cities, the state’s epidemiologist said Tuesday.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the strain is a form of Group A Strep that was first detected in Fairbanks this February, CBS affiliate KTVA reports. Since then the invasive bacteria has caused 28 cases of severe illness — 10 in Fairbanks and 18 in Anchorage. Results are pending on another three suspected cases in Anchorage.

Among the total, 15 involved homeless people in Anchorage and two homeless people in Fairbanks.

Two of the deaths occurred in Fairbanks and two in Anchorage. Another three probable cases in Anchorage have not been confirmed.

All four of the deaths were of Alaska Natives. McLaughlin said studies have shown that American Indians and Alaska Natives are at increased risk of invasive disease. That’s when bacteria moves into normally sterile parts of the body.

Also more susceptible are the elderly, young children, people with compromised immune systems and other factors, including alcohol abuse.

In Anchorage, most of the patients have had some contact with the Brother Francis Shelter, KTVA reports. Shelter manager Lisa Caldeira said the CDC hadn’t asked them to change any of their practices, but they are trying to educate both clients and staff.

“We’re on the lookout,” Caldeira said. “The guests at the shelter are already a vulnerable population, so if something makes them even more vulnerable, we are looking out to be on their side for their health and safety.”

McLaughlin emphasized that the people counted all had invasive cases, which can lead to death or serious illness, including sepsis, pneumonia and toxic shock syndrome. Those generally would not include simple strep throat.

“People with strep throat don’t have what we would call invasive disease,” McLaughlin said. “Now, people with strep throat can develop invasive disease.”

The strain is new to the state, according to McLaughlin, who noted it was previously seen in the Middle East. There are more than 220 strains of Group A strep, and Alaska sees between 60 and 90 cases each year, including deadly ones.

“This is the first time this particular strain of Group A strep has been identified in Alaska,” McLaughlin said. “We’re not aware of other states that have seen this particular strain of Group A strep circulating in their communities.”

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