'Dickensian' disease on the rise in the UK: Is Australia at risk?


There has been a 208 per cent increase in the number of UK hospital visits due to scarlet fever, a childhood disease most prevalent in the early 1900s.

An infectious disease researcher has raised concern about a possible outbreak of scarlet fever, after a surge of instances in the UK.

Scarlet fever was a leading cause of infant death in the early 1900s and is among a number of "Dickensian diseases" to have been recently diagnosed in the UK.

An analysis of data from the UK National Health Service, conducted by the Labour Party, showed hospital visits for scarlet fever increased from 429 in 2010-2011 to 1,321 in 2017-2018 - a 208 per cent increase.

Scarlet fever ward, Park Hospital, London
Interior of male scarlet fever ward, Park Hospital, Hither Green, south east London.

Hospital admissions due to whooping cough (pertussis), which had been virtually wiped out in the 1950s due to vaccination, were up also 59 per cent from 2010-2018, while admissions for gout also increased 38 per cent.

The Labour Party blamed the spike in scarlet fever cases on sustained cuts to local authority public health budgets.

"Dickensian diseases on the rise in Tory Britain today," said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's shadow health and social care secretary, in a statement.

What is scarlet fever?

Scarlet fever is a type of bacterial throat infection spread by Group A Streptococcus (strep throat bacteria) known as GAS. 

It usually affects children aged 5 to 15 and symptoms include a red rash on the skin, sore throat, fever, headache and nausea.

It is spread by coughing and sneezing and physical contact with an infected person or contaminated object. 

It can easily be treated in about a week with antibiotics.

Threat to Australia?

Researcher professor Mark Walker from Brisbane's UQ School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences said they are monitoring the situation in the UK.

"There are concerns about the possibility of scarlet fever causing group A streptococcal strains spreading from the UK into Australia and other countries," he told SBS News. 

"It will be more difficult to monitor an increase in scarlet fever in Australia because, unlike the UK, disease is not notifiable." 

But while the Labour Party blamed cuts to the public health system, Professor Robert Booy, a paediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Sydney School of Medicine, told SBS News a biological explanation is more logical.

"People are jumping on an increase that actually happened mostly between 2013 and 2014 when there was a more than trebling at that time, since then there's been a small increase but that small increase could be down to more awareness and more reporting," he said. 

"They've done a lot of genetic testing in the UK and no-one, as far as I can tell, is certain what's driven this so the best guess is still a new genetic change that is occurring in different types of Group A Strep."

It's not the first time a health condition associated with a bygone era has raised some concern in Australia.

In 2016, a major hospital in Western Sydney reported a number of diabetes patients were suffering from scurvy, a historical disease previously seen in sailors who were deprived of citrus fruit and vegetables on long voyages.

Scurvy is caused by a severe and chronic deficiency of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and is in modern times considered extremely rare.

The resurgence of scurvy among these patients was blamed partly on the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diet.

More information on scarlet fever can be found at

Anyone who is concerned about the health of their child should contact their doctor, the hospital emergency department or telephone Health Direct on 1800 022 222.

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