What is Group B Strep?

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July marks Group B Strep Awareness Month in the UK, led by charity Group B Strep Support, whose mission is to eradicate Group B Strep (or ‘GBS’) in babies. So, what is Group B Strep and what do expectant mothers need to know?

What is Group B Strep?

Group B Strep is a bacteria that normally lives in the human body, and around 20 – 40% of women carry it. For women who are ‘carriers’, GBS is harmless and they are likely to have no symptoms. Most carriers who give birth will do so safely and their baby will not develop an infection.

Whilst for the carrier Group B Strep is a harmless infection, in a small number of babies, it can have incredibly serious consequences.

What are the risks of Group B Strep?

Unfortunately, a small percentage of babies delivered by a ‘carrier’ mother will develop serious illnesses such as sepsis, pneumonia or meningitis. Although most babies will fully recover from the infection, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, one in 19 babies will die and one in 14 will live with a severe disability. Most infection is early onset (within the first six days of life).

Group B Strep Support says that around half of the babies who recover from GBS meningitis will have long-term neurological or physical problems and in one in eight cases, they will be severe. This can include hearing and/or sight loss, epilepsy, problems with movement and balance, difficulties with learning and memory, etc. Their website tells the story of a mother and her daughter who developed a Group B Strep infection after birth; the daughter now suffers with severe cerebral palsy.

Group B Strep infections can also cause stillbirths. Whilst there are no known ways to prevent a stillbirth caused by GBS before labour, there are ways to prevent stillbirths during labour.

How can it be prevented?

There is testing available for Group B Strep in the UK but not all women will be tested for it during pregnancy. This is because the screening committee considers that, whilst many women carry GBS, the majority of babies are born safely. If all women were given antibiotics, many would be receiving treatment they did not need. In addition, screening women will not accurately tell you which babies will develop GBS infection.

So if women are not routinely tested during pregnancy for Group B Strep, who should be tested?

According to the charity, women who are known to have carried Group B Strep in a previous pregnancy should be tested, usually at 35 to 37 weeks. However, as Group B Strep specific testing (see below) is not always available, you should check and consider buying an appropriate test privately. All pregnant women should be offered a leaflet by their midwife.

A test specifically designed to find the bacteria in carriers (known as the ECM test) is increasingly available on the NHS and widely offered privately. The charity says that many maternity units still use a standard test that has been known to miss up to half the women carrying GBS, and so expectant mothers should ask their doctors what is available locally.

Importantly, there are also guidelines on who should be offered antibiotics during labour. This could be crucial for a woman who does not know she is carrying Group B Strep, and has never by symptomatic, but starts to become ill during labour.

You should be offered antibiotics in labour if:

  • You have had a previous baby who has had a Group B Strep infection
  • There has been a finding of GBS in your urine during pregnancy
  • It has been detected on a swab during your current pregnancy
  • You carried the bacteria in a previous pregnancy, but have declined testing in this pregnancy
  • You are in pre-term labour (before 37 weeks)
  • You have a temperature of 38°C or greater
  • You have a clinical diagnosis of chorioamnionitis (an infection of the placenta and amniotic fluid)

The key take-away point here is that most early onset Group B Strep infections are preventable.

What are the symptoms of Group B Strep in babies?

Some early signs of Group B Strep in babies include:

  • Having a high or low temperature
  • Becoming blotchy
  • Being unusually floppy

Later signs include appearing blank/trance-like, turning away from bright light, and having blotchy skin.

The charity urges parents to contact a medical professional as soon as possible if they notice any signs in their child as early treatment saves lives.

Further information

If your baby developed a Group B Strep infection and you think it should have been identified and treated earlier, or you believe that you should have been given antibiotics but you were not, our specialist medical negligence solicitors are here to help.

If you have concerns about a preventable Group B Strep infection or any other maternal injury or negligence, contact our specialist birth injury solicitors on 0117 325 2929 or fill out our enquiry form.

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