July is Group B Strep (GBS) Awareness Month. Each month in the UK 2 babies on average will die from early-onset GBS infection and 3 babies will be left with long-term disabilities.

Discussions about Group B Streptococcus have become increasingly common in the media over the past few years. Research into its frequency and impact has now been published, and screening/vaccination options for GBS are now under investigation in the UK; however there is still more which can be done to raise awareness and prevent future GBS infections in babies.

Although up to 2 in 5 people carry GBS bacteria, it is harmless to the carrier, has no symptoms and the vast majority of people never even know they have it. The bacteria is usually found on the skin or in the vagina. However, pregnant women are at risk of passing it onto their babies which, on rare occasions, can have dangerous consequences.

GBS can cause a variety of serious health problems in newborn babies. It is one of the leading causes of neonatal pneumonia, sepsis, and meningitis and other health issues (occurring in about 2-3 out of every 100 births). It is also a known cause of stillbirths. Globally, it is estimated that at least 90,000 infant deaths & 57,000 stillbirths are due to issues caused by GBS each year. Although most babies recover from issues caused by GBS, it can have a lifelong impact for both the baby and their family.

In babies, there are two types of GBS infection: “early-onset” (in babies up to a week old) and ‘late-onset’ (in babies from one week to three months old). Early-onset is more common and is passed on during childbirth; late-onset can be developed through skin-to-skin contact.

Currently in the UK GBS is not routinely screened for in pregnancy and instead testing and antibiotic treatment during labour is provided based upon “risk factors”. There are therefore many women who are identified as “low risk” but whose babies may still have an increased risk of GBS infection because they are not known to be carrying it. Although GBS testing is not currently routinely available on the NHS, GBS home testing services are available privately for about £35.

After pressure from campaigning groups, the UK Government started trialling screening at 80 hospitals in England, Wales, & Scotland in May 2019. This will be accompanied by a 2019/2020 review by the UK National Screening Committee into the need for screening, and the efficacy of such screening, for all pregnant women.

There are concerns within the medical community that routine testing could lead to antibiotics being used more frequently, which could increase the risk of antibiotic resistance. A proposed alternative to screening is vaccination; however, there is no vaccine currently available and investment is needed into research to make this possible. Research undertaken in 2017 estimated that an effective vaccine could prevent more than 100,000 stillbirths each year. An effective vaccine would also reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance and problems caused by allergies to antibiotics. 

For more information…

The national charity Group B Strep Support campaigns to stop GBS infection in babies through raising awareness and advocating improvements in treatment. They also offer advice and support to families affected by GBS. Further information can be found on their website at https://gbss.org.uk/ .

Additionally, the NHS offers online advice about GBS, including warning signs of the illnesses potentially caused by it, as well as information on what to do if you are worried about yourself or your baby: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/group-b-strep/ .

Alternatively, contact your midwife or GP to discuss GBS and any concerns you may have.

As specialists in meningitis and sepsis claims, our Oxford team have seen too often the devastating impact that GBS infections can have. If you are concerned about the care which you or your baby has received, please contact a member of our clinical negligence team on 01865 781000 for a free, confidential discussion.

The Freeths national clinical negligence team is headed by:

Carolyn Lowe, Partner (Oxford/Milton Keynes/London) - 01865 781019 / carolyn.lowe@freeths.co.uk

Karen Reynolds, Partner (Derby/Stoke on Trent/Birmingham) - 0845 274 6830 / karen.reynolds@freeths.co.uk

Jane Williams, Partner (Leicester/Nottingham) - 0845 272 5724 / jane.williams@freeths.co.uk

 For further information please also visit our website at: http://www.freeths.co.uk/legal-services/individuals/clinical-negligence/