It’s a hidden infection that can cause severe, even fatal, illness in newborn babies – from meningitis to blood poisoning and pneumonia.
But now scientists have made a major breakthrough in the diagnosis of Group B Streptococcal (GBS) infection – a super-fast test that can pinpoint the bacterium in less than two hours.
Until now, blood tests have been slow and sometimes inaccurate, meaning treatment with the right antibiotics may not happen quickly enough.
But the new diagnostic test could prevent serious illness and even death in young babies afflicted by GBS, which is responsible for more than half of neonatal meningitis cases in Britain today.
The breakthrough has been made by scientists at the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and is reported in the Journal of Medical Microbiology.
Dr Aruni De Zoysa, from the HPA Streptococcus Reference Unit, said: “If we can allow clinicians to diagnose GBS infection quickly and accurately, this will mean antibiotic treatment can start sooner. Better management of the disease in this way should reduce the risk of mortality.”
She added: “Our new test, although still in the early stages of development, is an invaluable tool that is based on detecting DNA, which makes diagnosis far more accurate and allows us to get results much faster.
“As there is no vaccine at present for GBS, rapid and accurate detection of the GBS bacterium is crucial to reduce the risk of infant deaths from GBS infection.”
In 2010, 506 babies under the age of three months in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were diagnosed with ‘Group B Strep’ infection. If left untreated it can cause rapid inflammation of the brain lining (meningitis), septicaemia, or blood poisoning and pneumonia, all of which can be fatal.
Around one in eight young babies who develop GBS meningitis die.
Chris Head, chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: “A better diagnostic test for GBS could be a life-saver.”
GBS bacteria live harmlessly in the human digestive system, and the female genital tract, and are in fact carried by 20 to 30 per cent of pregnant women. It can be transmitted to the newborn during delivery. Up to three per cent of infants who become “colonised” with the bacterium go on to develop potentially fatal blood infections within their first week of life.
Currently women are not routinely screened for GBS, but the GBSS (Group B Strep Support) charity is campaigning for this to be introduced.
At the moment, women who are found to carry GBS through routine exams are offered intravenous antibiotics during labour.