Word on Health

Word On Group B Strep

Our thanks to the charity Group B Strep Support for their contribution to our on-air report which you can hear further down this page. Thanks also to NHS Choices for the information on group B Strep below.

According to the charity Group B Strep Support, too many pregnant women are not aware of the biggest cause of life threatening infection in new born babies and the major cause of meningitis in children under 3 months old.  A study conducted for Group B Strep Support revealed that fewer than 50% of pregnant mums had heard of group B Strep, and of those, only a third learned about it from their health professionals.  

Group B Strep (GBS) is a common bacterium carried by approximately one in every four adults, usually unknowingly and without symptoms.  Normally harmless to adults, it can be passed from mum to baby around birth with potentially devastating consequences. Without preventative medicine, one in every 300 babies born to women carrying group B Strep will develop an infection causing sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia.  Thankfully most babies will recover with prompt in-patient treatment, but on average one baby dies every week from group B Strep infection, and one baby a fortnight is left with lifelong disability.  

Testing for group B Strep – is a routine part of antenatal care in many countries including Canada, France, Germany and the USA but not in the UK.  

Group B Strep Support, is urging pregnant mums and expectant dads to find out about group B Strep. Jane Plumb MBE, the chief executive of the charity said,

“Every mother-to-be should be informed about group B Strep during routine antenatal care and, if she wants to be tested for it in pregnancy, the 'gold standard' ECM test should be available on the NHS but sadly isn’t offered by the majority of health trusts and in many instances has to be sourced privately by the mum-to-be at a cost of £35.

When a woman is identified as carrying group B Strep during her pregnancy, UK guidelines recommend she is offered intravenous antibiotics in labour to minimise the risk of her new born baby developing infection. These targeted antibiotics are highly effective - reducing the risk of an infection developing in a new born baby born to a woman carrying group B Strep from one in every 300 to less than one in 6000.”

GBS - Introduction

According to NHS Choices, most pregnant women who carry group B streptococcus (GBS) bacteria have healthy babies. However, there's a small risk that GBS can pass to the baby during childbirth.

Sometimes GBS infection in newborn babies can cause serious complications that can be life threatening, but this is not common.

Extremely rarely, GBS infection during pregnancy can also cause miscarriage, early (premature) labour, or stillbirth.

What is GBS?

GBS is one of many bacteria that can be present in our bodies. It doesn't usually cause any harm. When this happens it's called "carrying" GBS or being colonised with GBS.

It's estimated about one pregnant woman in five in the UK carries GBS in their digestive system or vagina.

Around the time of labour and birth, many babies come into contact with GBS and are colonised by the bacteria. Most are unaffected, but a small number can become infected.

Early-onset GBS infection

If a baby develops GBS infection less than seven days after birth, it's known as early-onset GBS infection. Most babies who become infected develop symptoms within 12 hours of birth.

Symptoms include:

  • being floppy and unresponsive
  • not feeding well
  • grunting
  • high or low temperature
  • fast or slow heart rates
  • fast or slow breathing rates
  • irritability
  • What complications can GBS infection cause?

Most babies who become infected can be treated successfully and will make a full recovery.

However, even with the best medical care the infection can sometimes cause life-threatening complications, such as:

  • blood poisoning (septicaemia)
  • infection of the lung (pneumonia)
  • infection of the lining of the brain (meningitis)

One in 10 babies born with GBS will die from the infection. Another one in five babies who survive the infection will be affected permanently. Early-onset GBS infection can cause problems such as cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness, and serious learning difficulties.

Rarely, GBS can cause infection in the mother – for example, in the womb or urinary tract, or – more seriously – an infection that spreads through the blood, causing symptoms to develop throughout the whole body (sepsis).

Preventing early-onset GBS infection

If you've previously had a baby with GBS, your maternity team will either monitor the health of your newborn baby closely for at least 12 hours after birth, or treat them with antibiotics until blood tests confirm whether or not GBS is present.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has published guidance for healthcare professionals on preventing early-onset GBS infection.  This leaflet from the RCOG tells you more about GBS infection in newborn babies (PDF, 141kb).

Late-onset GBS infection

Late-onset GBS infection develops seven or more days after a baby is born. This isn't usually associated with pregnancy. The baby probably became infected after the birth – for example, they may have caught the infection from someone else.

GBS infections after three months of age are extremely rare.

Breastfeeding doesn't increase the risk of GBS infection and will protect your baby against other infections.

Listen to this weeks radio report

All material on this website is provided for your information only and may not be construed as medical advice or instruction. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information; instead, readers should consult appropriate health professionals on any matter relating to their health and well-being.