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Group B Strep: 8 things every parent should know

Known as the silent infection, GBS can be fatal for newborns. Ahead of July’s Awareness Month, here are the key signs to be aware of. By Lisa Salmon.


(Alamy/PA)

Group B streptococcus (GBS) is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, and it can kill within hours – yet the UK doesn’t routinely test pregnant women for it.


The charity Group B Strep Support (GBSS) says an average of two babies develop a GBS infection every day in the UK, and while most recover, one baby dies as a result of the infection each week, and one baby a week survives with life-changing disabilities.


GBSS says around two to four out of every 10 women in the UK will carry group B strep in their rectum, vagina, or intestines, although most of them won’t experience any symptoms. However, if a woman’s pregnant, group B Strep can affect her baby around the time of birth.


Speaking to mark July’s Group B Strep Awareness Month, GBSS chief executive Jane Plumb, who set up the charity in 1996 with her husband Robert after their son, Theo, died from GBS infection aged 17 hours, stresses that raising awareness of Group B Strep can save babies’ lives and minimise the heartache the illness often causes. “Group B strep is the most common cause of severe infection, including sepsis and meningitis, in newborn babies, yet people are not routinely told about it during pregnancy. This isn’t good enough,” she says.


Here’s what all parents-to-be and new parents should know about GBS…


1. It can cause meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia


As the most common cause of infection in newborns, Plumb says GBS, which affects around 800 babies in the UK every year, can lead to serious conditions including meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia. As a result, around 50 babies will die every year, and 75 will survive with a long-term disability. “Group B strep awareness is a matter of life and death,” says Plumb. “By shining a spotlight on this silent infection, we can save precious lives and spare families from unnecessary heartache.”


2. GBS infections can be prevented in babies


Most GBS infections in newborn babies can be prevented, says Plumb, by identifying women with risk factors. “One of the risk factors is carrying the bacteria during pregnancy,” she says, “and then intravenous antibiotics can be offered during labour to minimise the risk of the baby developing a group B strep infection.”


3. A mother carrying GBS doesn’t necessarily mean her baby will be infected


GBSS says around 20-25% of women carry GBS in their vagina and/or lower intestines, but if a woman is carrying GBS when she gives birth, the risk of her baby developing early-onset GBS infection is about one in 400 if antibiotics aren’t given in labour, or around one in 4,000 if antibiotics are given.


4. It’s not just newborn babies that get GBS infections


Although most GBS infections develop in the first two days of life, they can develop later, though they are rare after the age of three months, says Plumb. “Knowing the key signs is vital – every family needs to know about GBS,” she stresses.


5. Most women who carry GBS don’t have symptoms


GBS carriage isn’t associated with symptoms, says Plumb, so most people who carry the bacteria won’t show any signs of it.


6. Antibiotics may be given to some women during labour


The Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists recommends that if GBS is detected in a woman during pregnancy, or if she’s previously had a baby affected by GBS, she should be offered antibiotics in labour to reduce the risk of the baby being infected.


7. There’s no routine GBS testing in the UK


The NHS doesn’t currently provide routine testing for GBS, although other high-income countries do. Plumb says UK National Screening, which sets screening policy in the UK, says there isn’t enough evidence to introduce antenatal GBS screening for all pregnant women in the UK, although a randomised control trial is due to report in 2025, and the evidence is then expected to be reviewed.


Plumb says: “The evidence shows clearly that antenatal testing is better than a risk-factor strategy for preventing GBS infection in newborn babies, and GBSS think the UK should catch up its peers around the world by introducing this. Most high-income countries do so, including the USA, Canada, Hong Kong and most of Europe – why are we last on the list?”


8. Pregnant women can be tested privately


GBSS says pregnant women can be tested privately for GBS, usually at between 35-37 weeks of pregnancy, at some clinics, or by doing a DIY test with a kit, which costs about £40.


GBSS helpline 0330 120 0796.

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