It’s the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborns, affecting as many as 1,000 babies every year.
Group B Streptococcus is a normal bacterium carried, mostly harmlessly, by 30 per cent of adults. But when carried by pregnant women it can pass to the baby during labour – sometimes leading to devastating consequences, including blood infection, pneumonia, meningitis, disability and, tragically, even death.
In the UK its incidence is on the rise, with so-called GBS infection in newborns increasing by 32 per cent in less than ten years.
Yet there is no routine test for the infection among mothers-to-be in Britain, meaning, say campaigners, that hundreds of preventable cases go untreated.
Most pregnant women have, in fact, never heard of GBS.
Now, according to the charity Group B Strep Support (GBSS), routine screening is the only way to stop the rising incidence of the potentially devastating infection.
Professor Philip Steer, consultant obstetrician at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital and chair of the GBSS medical advisory panel, said: “Group B Strep infection is the commonest infection complicating labour and the newborn period, and the evidence is that in the UK the problem is increasing, affecting up to as many as 1,000 babies and their families per year. For too many, the complication is fatal.”
He said there is “compelling evidence” that, in other countries where routine screening of mothers at 35 to 37 weeks gestation has been introduced there have been “reductions of four fifths or more in the rate of infections due to GBS”.
In the UK, a lack of studies proving effectiveness of routine screening has led to the National Screening Committee declining to advise the practice.
Rather, the current strategy – introduced by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists in 2003 - uses “risk factors” to identify which women to offer preventative intravenous antibiotics during labour.
These risk factors are: the mother being known to carry GBS during the current pregnancy, or having a GBS urinary tract infection during the current pregnancy; a previous sibling who developed the infection; labour starting or waters breaking more than 18 hours before delivery starting; waters breaking before 37 weeks; and the mother having a fever in labour.
However GBSS campaigners insist the current strategy is “failing to halt the increase in reported cases,” adding that in countries that have introduced routine testing of pregnant women with preventative medicine given to identified carriers, there have been dramatic falls in reported cases – by more than 80 per cent in the USA, Spain and Australia.
A recent survey also suggests women in the UK would welcome routine testing in later pregnancy, with 92 per cent of young women saying information about group B Strep should be routinely given to pregnant women – and that a routine test should be provided.
Some 95 per cent of young women said women carrying group B Strep should be offered intravenous antibiotics in labour, and 89 per cent said they would “definitely or probably” agree to intravenous antibiotics in labour if they were found to be carrying group B Strep.
TV GP Dr Chris Steel said: “At present there is no national testing for group B Strep in pregnancy. The tests that are done are not designed to detect GBS and give a high level of falsely negative results, meaning women think they are free from GBS when they are not. Tests are available for GBS, which pose no risk to mother or baby, but they are currently only available privately. They should be offered on the NHS.”
Charlotte Cheshire, from Telford, mother to one-year-old Adam, has told how the consequences of group B Strep infection can be “devastating”.
“When my son Adam was born in March 2011 he appeared a healthy little boy. However, by the morning after his birth he was grunting and not feeding and the staff realised something was wrong,” she said.
“Adam stopped breathing, began to have seizures and was running a high fever. He was placed on a cocktail of antibiotics while the staff confirmed the diagnosis of group B Strep infection. We were told he was not expected to live and, if he did survive, he could be severely disabled.”
Following three weeks in intensive care, Adam did, happily, survive – but will require intensive monitoring throughout his childhood and has been left with severe hearing damage and sight problems.
Cheshire adds: “All this could have been averted – if I’d had a sensitive GBS test late in pregnancy, it would almost definitely have found GBS and, with antibiotics from the start of labour, Adam could have been protected.
“I am Canadian and if I had chosen to have Adam in my native country, sensitive testing for GBS is routine as it is in many other western and European countries and we could have avoided the distress, trauma and consequences of GBS infection.”
A petition recently launched by GBSS calls on the Government to tell women about group B Strep during pregnancy and offer them screening. See http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/4854 for details.