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Disease That Killed Muppet Creator on the Rise, Researchers Say

May 19, 1990 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) _ Muppets creator Jim Henson died of severe pneumonia caused by a rare complication from a common bacteria - but not as rare as it used to be.

The pneumonia began with an infection with group A streptococcus bacteria, which cause ″a wide variety of infections, but most are mild infections, such as sore throat and impetigo,″ said Centers for Disease Control spokesman Chuck Fallis.

CDC researchers cautioned in January that group A streptococcus infections ″have re-emerged as a public health problem.″ But the Atlanta-based agency said ″factors contributing to the apparent recent increase ... are unclear.″

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Among several recent outbreaks of group A streptococcal illness was an outbreak of bacteremia - a severe bloodstream infection - in Denver last year. Nineteen cases were confirmed in one hospital in the first eight months of 1989, where just three had been reported in all of 1987.

Those serious bloodstream infections occur in just four or five cases per 100,000 Americans each year, Fallis said. ″It’s still uncommon.″ Of those severe infections, only one in five patients goes on to develop pneumonia, such as Henson did.

Henson had complained of cold symptoms to a physician cousin the weekend before his death Wednesday. He did not see a doctor for treatment until he checked into a New York hospital Tuesday morning, after he began having trouble breathing.

By that point, doctors said, the bacterial infection from his lungs had begun attacking other organs and the illness could no longer be controlled with antibiotics.

The fatality rate associated with group A streptococcus bacteremia is between 20 percent and 30 percent, Fallis said.

Serious group A streptococcal infections ″generally occur in the elderly, or in people with decreased immunity because of an underlying illness, such as cancer,″ Fallis said.

Before the recent rise in serious group A streptococcal infections, they had been less common than in previous generations.

″Over the past five decades, the rate and severity had been decreasing,″ Fallis said.

Infections are usually easily treated, if caught in time; the bacteria are quite sensitive to penicillin.