Each year in the UK, between 400 to 500 babies are born with Group-B streptococcus – a bacteria which can cause serious illness or death in newborns.
If you’ve never heard of Group B Strep, you’re not alone – I’m only aware of it through my work as a health journalist, interviewing parents of affected babies and writing about the campaign for the introduction of a screening programme to identify expectant mums with Group B Strep.
The UK National Screening Committee does not recommend testing all pregnant women for the presence of Group B Strep using vaginal and rectal swabs.
It is hardly surprising, however, that grieving parents who have lost their precious babies as a result of a Group B Strep infection want the test to be routinely offered to pregnant women.
So, Mumbreakable has spoken to Dr Laura Ringland, a GP at Kingsbridge Private Hospital in south Belfast, to find out the facts about Group B Strep.
Q: What is Group B Streptococcus (GBS) and how common is it?
A: GBS is a type of bacteria called streptococcal bacteria.
It’s very common – up to two in five people have it in their body and it is usually found in the rectum or vagina.
Q: Why is it dangerous to newborn babies and how is it passed to them?
A: If a mother carries GBS in pregnancy, most of the time the baby will be born safely and will not develop an infection.
However, it can rarely cause serious infections such as pneumonia (lung infection) or meningitis (brain lining infection) and sepsis (blood infection).
Around one in every 1,750 newborn babies in the UK and Ireland is diagnosed with early-onset GBS infection.
Q: Is there anything that can be done to protect babies from Strep B?
A: Most cases of early-onset GBS infection, which is when it happens the first week after birth, infections are preventable.
If GBS is found in the urine, vagina or rectum during pregnancy, or if the mother has previously had a baby affected by GBS infection, she should be offered antibiotics via a drip in labour to reduce the risk of the infection being transmitted to the baby.
If GBS is found in the vagina or rectum, treatment with antibiotics before labour does not reduce the chances of the baby getting GBS infection – antibiotics are therefore administered once labour starts.
Antibiotics reduce the risk of GBS from around one in 400 to one in 4,000.
If GBS is found in the urine, antibiotics should be given as soon as it is diagnosed and should be offered again during labour to prevent transmission to the baby.
Q: How do I know if my baby is at risk?
A: There is an increased risk if:
The baby is born pre-term, which is earlier than 37 completed weeks of pregnancy
There has been a positive urine or swab for GBS during the pregnancy
The mother has had a previous baby affected by GBS
The mother has signs of infection such as a high temperature during labour
The waters break more than 24-hours before the baby is born
Q: What are the symptoms of a Strep B infection in a baby?
A: Urgent medical attention should be sought if a newborn baby has any of the following symptoms as they can represent serious illness, including sepsis due to GBS:
Floppy and and unresponsive
Grunting and/or distressed breathing (fast or slow)
An unusually high or low temperature
A very fast or slow heart rate
Changes in skin colour (including blotchy skin)
Q: What should I do if I think my baby has a Strep B infection?
A: Group Strep infection can cause a range of symptoms with a range of severity.
Most cases of Group B infection are picked up in the hospital, but if you have been discharged and your baby is suffering from any of the above, I would advise ringing 999 or taking your baby straight to A&E.
If you have concerns, but it is not an emergency, I would advise speaking to your midwife or contacting the hospital directly.
If you have any concerns about GBS, you should speak to your GP, obstetrician or midwife.
Private GP appointments are available at Kingsbridge Private Hospital on the Lisburn Road and at the Maypole Clinic in Holywood.