Group B Strep kills one baby a week and another is left with a life-changing disability.
What is group B Strep?
- GBS is a bacterium carried by many adults, commonly in the gut or in the vagina. Carriage is not an infection or illness, rarely causes any symptoms, and does not need to be treated. The carriage should, therefore, be regarded as normal.
- GBS can cause infection in newborn babies when the bacteria are transmitted to the baby around labour (in rare cases, it can also cause infection in adults whose immune system is depressed, either through old age, other illnesses, or medical therapy).
Almost one in four (24%) first-time pregnant women are unaware of group B Strep, the UK’s most common cause of serious infection in newborn babies, according to a Bounty* survey of over 5,200 new and expectant parents. The survey was carried out on behalf of the charity, Group B Strep Support.
Group B Streptococcus bacteria (also known as GBS or Strep B) is present in approximately one in five pregnant women, usually causing no harm to the carrier, but it may be passed unknowingly from a mother to her baby around birth and can cause sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia in the baby. It is especially dangerous to premature babies.
On average, two babies each day in the UK develop a group B Strep infection and each week, one baby dies and another is left with a life-changing disability.
According to national guidelines, all mothers-to-be should receive an information leaflet on group B Strep, written by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the charity, Group B Strep Support. Yet many mothers-to-be are not informed about group B Strep.
Key facts about group B Strep
- Group B Streptococcus (also known as group B Strep, GBS or Strep B) is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies.
- Group B Strep is the most common cause of severe infection in newborn babies (typically sepsis or pneumonia) and of meningitis in babies under 3 months of age.
- If left untreated, a GBS infection can kill a newborn baby within hours.
- On average, two babies each day in the UK develop a GBS infection and each week, one baby dies from a GBS infection and another is left with a life-changing disability.
- Most GBS infections in newborn babies can be prevented by testing during pregnancy and providing intravenous antibiotics during labour to women whose test results are positive.
- The UK does not routinely test for GBS, unlike most developed countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, France and Spain.
- Even Bangladesh, Iran, Lithuania and Trinidad and Tobago routinely test pregnant women for GBS.
- The GBS-specific test would cost the NHS just £11, and costs from £35 privately.
Becca Jones, from Bristol, had a straight-forward first pregnancy and labour and brought her son, Grayson, home hours after his hospital birth. The next day, on 4 April 2019, Becca alerted a midwife when Grayson would not stop crying, was refusing food and was floppy. He was immediately rushed to Bristol Children’s Hospital after also suffering seizures and with a very high temperature.
Before group B Strep sepsis and meningitis were diagnosed, Grayson had three lumbar punctures, MRI and CT scans and had a PICC line inserted for antibiotic dispensing. His infection levels were so high he had multiple seizures and spent over a week in a high dependency ward being monitored hourly. After two weeks in hospital, Grayson was discharged but nurses came daily for the following week to administer antibiotics.
Most group B Strep infections in newborn babies can be prevented by testing the mother late in pregnancy and providing intravenous antibiotics during labour to those who test positive. This reduces the risk of a baby developing a group B Strep infection by up to 90 per cent. The test would cost the NHS just £11 and costs from £35 privately. Pregnant women can take a simple, safe swab test between 35 and 37 weeks.
The UK does not routinely test pregnant women for group B Strep, unlike the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Spain and many other developed countries where all mothers-to-be are tested.
Becca Jones and her partner, Lewis Parker, had never heard of group B Strep until Grayson was born. She said: “I had no idea that I was a carrier for group B Strep and because it wasn’t picked up before Grayson’s birth, I was not given any antibiotics which meant that Grayson went downhill very quickly”.
Grayson is still under close observation and attends regular appointments to review his medication and health. Becca Jones said: “Grayson has a long road ahead in his recovery and I’m still in disbelief about what we went through and how it could have been so easily prevented.”
“I don’t want any other family going through what we did. We need to be telling pregnant women about group B Strep as a matter of urgency,” Becca Jones continued.
UK prevention approach
- The UK does not routinely offer antenatal testing for group B Strep, unlike most high-income countries, including the United States, Canada, Germany, France and Spain.
- Currently in the UK health professionals consider a range of risk factors to determine whether a woman should be offered antibiotics in labour, rather than testing for the presence of GBS. Latest RCOG guidelines are at https://obgyn.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1471-0528.14821.
- The rate of early-onset GBS infection in newborn babies in the UK is currently two and half times (2.5x) that of the United States. The rate in the United States dropped by over 80% with the introduction of routine testing.
- If the rate was reduced in the UK in the same way, we could prevent GBS infection in approximately 350 babies every year, saving 15 babies’ lives and protecting another 15 from life-changing disability.
- Depending on where she lives, a woman may not have access to the right kind of test (an ECM test) or be offered antibiotics in labour- it’s a postcode lottery. Group B Strep Support campaigns to change this and to introduce a proper testing strategy in the UK
Jane Plumb MBE, founder and Chief Executive of Group B Strep Support said: “Group B Strep cases are rising in the UK, meaning that more newborns than ever are at danger of dying or being left with a long-term disability. This survey has revealed the massive gulf in awareness of group B Strep which needs to be addressed.
“We’re calling on the governments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to run public awareness campaigns about this devastating bacteria that can wreak havoc and destruction on the most vulnerable in our society. Until all pregnant women are offered to test for group B Strep, we need to make sure that they can make informed choices about whether to get tested privately or not”.
In the UK, there has been a rise of almost a third (31%) in the rate of group B Strep infections in babies under three months of age since 2000, despite risk-based prevention guidelines being introduced in 2003. By contrast, in countries that routinely test pregnant women for group B Strep carriage, the incidence has fallen dramatically, by up to 86%. The rate in the United States of early-onset GBS infections (those in the first six days of life) is now less than half that of the UK.
*The Bounty survey was completed by 5,205 Bounty pre-natal and post-natal members via email and the Bounty newsletter between 22 – 26 June 2019.
Group B Strep Support is a national charity, working to stop GBS infection in babies.
Set up in 1996 by Jane Plumb after her newborn son, Theo, died from GBS infection aged 17 hours. We work with families affected by GBS and campaign for a proper testing regime to be introduced in the UK.
Group B Strep Support offers information about GBS infections, testing and treatment. All information is approved by an expert medical advisory panel via their website www.gbss.org.uk.
Helpline: provides one to one support and information or Call 0330 120 0796.