On 23 January 2017, bereaved parents, Fiona Paddon and Scott Bramley, will deliver a Change.org petition of over 250,000 signatures to the Department of Health, Richmond House, Whitehall regarding screening of Group B Strep for all pregnant ladies.
Their petition calls on Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Dame Sally Davies and the Chief Executive of Public Health England, Dr Duncan Selbie to ensure sensitive testing* for group B Streptococcus (GBS or Strep B) carriage is routinely and freely available for all pregnant women in the UK. Routinely offering these tests could prevent over 80% of GBS infections in newborn babies born to women carrying the bacteria, and would cost just £11 per test.
Group B Strep is the UK’s most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, causing meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia. Carried normally by one in every four women, the group B Strep bacteria can pass from a pregnant woman to her baby around birth with potentially devastating consequences for the baby.
On average in the UK;
- One baby a day develops group B Strep infection
- One baby a week dies from group B Strep infection
- One baby a fortnight survives group B Strep infection but is left with long-term disabilities
Yet, unlike most other developed countries, health professionals in the UK rarely tell pregnant women about GBS and only rarely offer sensitive testing.
The good news is that most GBS infections in newborn babies can be prevented with the careful use of antibiotics in labour.
So what happens in the UK at the moment?
In the UK, we don’t specifically test for GBS, although GBS may show up in tests that are done for other reasons, such as swabs taken to check out vaginal discharge. The NHS test done in this situation isn’t specifically looking for GBS and will often miss it even when it’s present.
There is a much better, more reliable test available called the ECM (Enriched Culture Medium) test which, although available privately for around £35, is rarely available in the NHS.
Some NHS trusts do use the ECM test, so it’s worth asking – and listed here are the places which offer the ECM test, both NHS and privately (including a home-testing pack).
Prevention better than cure
There are certain situations that increase the chance of a newborn baby developing GBS infection. These are known as ‘risk factors’, and include: GBS being detected during the current pregnancy, Mum having a raised temperature during labour, labour starting before 37 weeks of pregnancy and waters breaking 18 or more hours before your baby is born.
UK guidelines recommend that that a pregnant Mum should be offered antibiotics in labour if GBS has been detected during the current pregnancy, if she’s previously had a baby with GBS infection, and if she has a fever in labour. These antibiotics massively reduce the risk of the newborn baby developing a Group B Strep infection.
Most GBS infections in babies show within their first two days, though more rarely, these can develop up to around 3 months of age (after which, they are very rare indeed).
Researchers around the world are working on developing a vaccine that will one day prevent almost all GBS infection in babies, but it’s early days. The vaccine won’t be available for at least the next 10-15 years, if not longer.
While many pregnant Mums who have GBS detected during their pregnancies will want antibiotics in labour, not all will – others may decide not to have them unless there are additional risk factors. Whatever a Mum chooses, knowing about Group B Strep when you’re pregnant means you can, working with your health professionals, make an informed decision about what is right for you, and your baby.
The Group B Strep Support website has a wealth of information and frequently asked questions for parents to be, as well as links to professional guidelines, research papers, and free informative leaflets/posters. Do email or call them with your questions and concerns firstname.lastname@example.org | 01444 416176
*Sensitive testing refers to Enriched Culture Medium (ECM) testing, recognised as the international gold standard, and designed specifically to detect group B Strep carriage. This contrasts with the standard, non-specific test usually used within the NHS and which has a high false-negative rate, missing around half the women carrying group B Strep.