Reye's syndrome was first described in 1963 by an Australian pathologist, R. Douglas Reye, MD. Since then it has been recognised in many parts of the world. It used to occur in minor epidemics, which in some countries (most notably the USA) were associated with influenza epidemics.
Although the exact incidence of the disease in the UK and Ireland is not known, reported cases have fallen dramatically from nearly a hundred in 1984 to only one in 2002.
In the period 2003 to 2009 three cases of Reye’s syndrome or Reye-like illness in England and Wales have been ascertained by the adverse drug reaction surveillance scheme of the MHRA. In one of these a 14 year old girl had been given oral aspirin for a viral illness – she also turned out to have one of the Reye-like inherited metabolic disorders; the second was an infant who had been given an excessive amount of an oral teething gel containing choline salicylate; the third patient had not been exposed to any form of aspirin or salicylate, the illness was thought to be related to an antiretroviral drug.
It is likely that there is some under-reporting and under-diagnosis, but this downward trend has also been seen in the USA and is attributed to reduction in the use of aspirin in children since the public warnings in 1986. Nevertheless there may be a resurgence, especially if there is a large 'flu' epidemic or the aspirin warning is ignored as the time goes by. It is thus essential that clinicians retain high diagnostic awareness of Reye's syndrome and Reye-like illnesses. For further information on surveillance of Reye's syndrome download the guidance on the 'BPSU Website': studies/completed studies - see resources.