N.S. couple dies from strep A just hours apart. Their family is speaking out

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N.S. couple dies from strep A just hours apart
Nova Scotia Health is seeing a spike in death in recent months from an aggressive form of strep A. Another family is speaking out to warn about the signs and symptoms, after their parents died within hours of each other. Zack Power reports – Apr 5, 2024

Two sisters are warning the public about an invasive form of strep after their mother and step-father died from the disease on the same day earlier this year.

Sammi and Meta Ross said doctors failed to recognize the warning signs of group A strep until it was too late.

Strep A are bacteria found on the skin and throat that can cause a wide range of diseases in children and adults. Invasive group A streptococcus occurs when the bacteria cause deeper infections and are isolated from a normally sterile body site, such as the blood.

Ginny and Jeffery Killam of Woods Harbour, N.S., both died of the aggressive illness within hours of each other on Feb. 25. They were both 59, and Ginny was just weeks away from celebrating her 60th birthday.

Ginny and Jeffery Killam died about two hours apart from group A strep. Submitted by Meta Ross

The sisters said they weren’t too concerned initially when their mother developed flu-like symptoms a few days before her death.

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“She went to her family doctor on Tuesday, and they told her she had influenza,” Sammi said. “She came home and went to bed to get rest.”

But that Thursday, Ginny’s symptoms got worse: she was “grey,” sweaty and clammy. She was rushed to hospital by ambulance and went into septic shock that night.

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Jeffery, who accompanied his wife to the hospital, began developing symptoms the next day and was admitted to hospital. That night, Public Health informed Sammi and Meta that their parents had strep A. The sisters were put on antibiotics as a precaution.

Ginny and Jeffery’s conditions deteriorated over the weekend before they passed away.

Click to play video: 'Strep A cases appear on track to hit record levels in 2024'
Strep A cases appear on track to hit record levels in 2024

“By Sunday morning at 10 a.m., our step-dad was coding, and they were losing mom,” Meta said. “So within two hours, we lost them both.”

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Sammi and Meta believe that had the family doctor tested their mother for strep A sooner, instead of sending her home with a flu diagnosis, she may have survived.

They also said the hospital should have taken precautions to protect their step-father once it was clear their mother had the infectious disease, especially since he was at high risk due to being on dialysis.

“There should have been no waiting. He should have been put on antibiotics Friday night,” Meta said.

Cases on the rise

Nova Scotia Health says 40 people in the province have caught group A strep so far this year, and 10 have died, including the Killams. The disease has also claimed the life of a six-year-old boy and a 45-year-old man.

There were five deaths in the province last year — all over the age of 55 — and 94 reported cases. Illness rates are highest among children under five and adults aged 65 and up.

In Nova Scotia, the rates of invasive group A strep, also known as iGAS, have increased among all age groups since 2022.

Public health physician Ryan Sommers said Nova Scotia Health is working with health-care providers to educate them on diagnosing group A strep.

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“It’s challenging for clinicians trying to determine, ‘Is this something that is a common respiratory illness, or is this something that’s more worrisome?'” he said.

Sommers said group A strep is more common during respiratory disease season in the fall and winter, and global cases began to increase after most public health measures for COVID-19 were lifted.

Other illnesses, such as COVID-19, RSV and influenza, “predisposes” people to catching group A strep as well, he said.

‘Don’t wait’

Symptoms of group A strep include:

  • High fever (worsening or persistent despite over-the-counter treatment)
  • Severe pain, swelling and redness of the affected area
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Rapidly spreading rash
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Severe pain in the arms, legs, neck or back
  • Dehydration
  • Changes in skin tone and colour.

Sommers said rapidly worsening symptoms are a “red flag” for the disease.

“It’s these rapid symptoms that come on very quickly within a short period of time,” he said. “So, six, 12, 18 hours — if you’re not getting better at that time, that’s the opportunity to get checked out by a health-care provider.”

The Ross sisters agree that time is of the essence, and urged people to seek medical attention if they feel unwell.

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“Don’t wait,” Meta said. “If you’re not feeling good, go to the doctor and tell them.”

Sammi added: “It’s so fast, especially for immunocompromised people, like my step-father.”

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