Flesh-Eating Bacteria Hits Japan – But Officials Tell Travelers Not to Worry

Flesh-Eating Bacteria Hits Japan – But Officials Tell Travelers Not to Worry

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STSS in Japan
Picture: Canva
Should you worry that streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS) will throw a wrench into your Japan travel plans? Officials say not to worry - but also say to exercise caution.

Japan has been busier than ever with tourists – and now, flesh-eating bacteria. Officials are trying to ease anxious travelers who are wondering if they should cancel their Japan trip.

Health officials say to not cancel your Japan trip

As the high-mortality disease streptococcal toxic shock syndrome (STSS) spreads, the Ministry of Health says “For individuals planning to travel to Japan, there’s no need to cancel travel plans due to the outbreak of this disease.”

Still, the Ministry’s website advises travelers to wear masks and maintain good hygiene.

A spokesperson told local newspaper Asahi Shimbun that “as long as basic measures against infection are in place, there’s no need to worry.”

What is STSS?

Blood cells in the body
earslan77 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The cause of STSS is the bacteria group A streptococcus, commonly known as strep A. Mild infections are hardly noticeable but can cause sore throats while affecting mostly children, especially at the beginning of each school year in April and May.

In cases where infections become more severe as older patients above 30 have exhibited, symptoms can include organ failure and death of body tissue called necrosis.

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STSS, colloquially called “flesh-eating bacteria,” has a mortality rate of 30%.

Media panic

Western media picked up on the rise of Japan’s STSS cases in March, instilling fear that “a dangerous infectious disease was spreading at record-breaking speed.”

Korean media Chūō Nippō also sounded the alarm on March 20th to warn Koreans, the largest group of inbound tourists and the third highest spenders in Japan last year.

“Amid an increase in Korean tourists who visit Japan, it is necessary to be cautious as an infectious disease with a 30% mortality rate is spreading rapidly in each region of Japan,” the Korean newspaper reported.

Tensions rose higher when North Korea canceled its 2026 FIFA World Cup qualification tournament game on March 26th with Japan to “prevent an epidemic of the infectious disease spreading in Japan,” according to Kyodo news agency.

Since then, the Health Ministry has seen an increase in inquiries regarding the safety of traveling to Japan.

According to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan has had 556 cases of STSS in the first quarter of 2024, according to data released on March 24th. That is already more than half of the record-high 941 STSS cases in 2023.

Japan last saw such a spread of the disease in 2019, when it began tracking infections in 1999. The sudden increase last year is likely due to Japan’s relaxation of COVID-19 measures, the Health Ministry says.

Latest data on new STSS cases

An individual sits on a hospital gurney with their back to the viewer, looking out two bright windows.

Last updated on April 2nd, public data shows that Fukuoka and Hyogo each have four new cases.

2 new cases have been identified in Hiroshima, Gifu, Niigata, Kanagawa, and Yamagata. Prefectures with one new case now are Oita, Nagasaki, Okayama, Tokyo, Saitama, Ibaraki, and Fukushima.

Tokyo, Japan’s most populous city, leads with 89 cases. It’s followed by Saitama (42), Kanagawa (33), and Aichi (31).

How to heal from STSS?

Early detection and treatment is essential. “The first step is taking antibiotics,” says Dr. Itō Shigehiko from Kitakyushu City Yahata Hospital. For body parts that have changed skin color or exhibit inflammation, amputation is necessary, he says.

To prevent getting STSS in the first place, he advises disinfecting cuts and injuries with sanitizer instead of just washing torn areas with water.

Sources

劇症型溶溶連菌の患者、過去最多だった去年同期の2・8倍…国立感染症研発表. 読売新聞

人食いバクテリア「劇症型溶血性レンサ球菌感染症」 専門家に聞く予防法と治療法. TBS NEWS DIG

「様子見は許されない」“致死率30%”韓国メディアが日本渡航に注意喚起する感染症に専門家が警鐘. FLASH

劇症型の感染症増加でも「日本への渡航取りやめる必要ない」厚労省. 朝日新聞

「劇症型血性レンサ球菌感染症」1人確認県が注意呼びかけ. NHK

劇症型溶血性レンサ球菌感染症. NHK

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