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University of Oklahoma researchers battling scarlet fever

OU researchers work to help battle the scarlet fever outbreak in Hong Kong that is blamed on a mutant germ. The disease recently killed two children in Hong Kong and has sickened more than 9,000 throughout China.
BY SONYA COLBERG Published: July 12, 2011

As Hong Kong struggles with a deadly scarlet fever outbreak, Oklahoma scientists are putting the heat on shifty, virus-infected bacteria.

Molecular biologist Joseph Ferretti recently contacted officials in Hong Kong to say the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center research will try to assist in fighting the disease.

“We're very excited,” OU researcher William McShan said.

McShan and Ferretti said they're hoping to provide valuable insight, particularly once they begin genetic analysis on some of the Hong Kong strains. Already, 9,000 scarlet fever cases have occurred in China with more than 500 cases in Hong Kong, including two child deaths — the first there in a decade.

“The severity of this is really remarkable,” Ferretti said.

Scarlet fever, characterized by a bright red sandpapery rash, is caused by bacteria responsible for nasty diseases such as pneumonia, toxic shock syndrome, strep throat and flesh-eating disease. Group A streptococcus also can cause strep throat, which can develop into scarlet fever.

“Just as we have our viruses, bacteria have their viruses,” Ferretti said.

This bacterial virus — called a phage — acts as a double agent in the microscopic world. While most phages kill bacteria, this rouge phage manages to mix its DNA into the group A streptococcus bacterium. Suddenly, the streptococcus goes crazy, mutating its DNA 100 to 1,000 times faster than usual.

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