Why better screening is needed to help detect Group B streptococcal infections in babies

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Medical Negligence on Friday, July 19th, 2019

Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a bacterium that can cause serious illness, particularly in new-borns. It is responsible for many cases of meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, as well as some cases of blood infections (sepsis) and pneumonia.


Why does the NHS not offer GBS screening?

This is a contentious issue. Unlike other countries, such as the US, Canada and France, there is no routine screening during pregnancy for GBS, despite the fact that a test costs the NHS just £11, and GBS is the leading cause of infections in new-born babies.

There have been numerous petitions to screen for GBS, but the government says only a small minority of babies whose mothers test positive for GBS will become infected, leading to many women and babies being exposed to ‘unnecessary antibiotic use’.

However in signs that action might be forthcoming, the National Institute for Health Research has just announced a clinical trial to improve the diagnosis and treatment of this potentially life-threatening infection in new-born babies.

The trial will test the effectiveness of two types of screening compared to no screening in 80 hospitals in England and Wales. The results will inform future pregnancy screening policy in the UK. In the meantime, the risks persist.


What action should a pregnant woman take?

A pregnant woman should speak with her doctor about her GBS status. A woman who has GBS in her body typically does not feel sick, but she is at increased risk of passing the bacteria to her baby during birth. Sometimes, however, these women may have urinary tract or blood infections while pregnant.


Who should be tested?

About one out of every four pregnant women carry GBS in their rectum or vagina. Those women are considered GBS positive. A woman may test positive for the bacteria on some occasions but not others. That is why all pregnant women should be tested for GBS bacteria in the vagina and rectum between 35 to 37 weeks of every pregnancy.


How can GBS be prevented?

Early onset GBS infections in new-borns can often be prevented if infected pregnant women take intravenous (never by mouth) antibiotics when they are giving birth, typically when labour begins.


Signs and symptoms

These infections often occur very soon after birth. Infections that take place in the first week of life are called early onset disease. Premature new-borns are more likely to develop GBS infections than full-term infants.

A baby infected with GBS may have symptoms such as:
• Fever
• Feeding difficulties
• Irritability
• Lethargy


What happens if a baby contracts GBS?

GBS is the most common cause of severe infection in new-born babies, and unfortunately mistakes in diagnosis can happen that can cause serious complications. Potential complications of this infection include:

• Blood poisoning (sepsis)
• Lung infection (pneumonia)
• Brain lining infection (meningitis)

Sadly 6-7% of babies with a GBS infection die due to one of these complications and 9-10% are left with long-term disabilities such as:

• Cerebral Palsy
• Brain injury
• Blindness
• Deafness
• Serious learning difficulties


What is the Treatment?

New-borns with GBS infections should be treated with intravenous antibiotics such as ampicillin, gentamicin, penicillin, or another antibiotic such as a cephalosporin. Currently there are no vaccines against GBS infections, although several are being studied.


How we can help

If your baby contracts GBS and you were not tested for it during the pregnancy please contact us. We will advise you on whether you may have a claim against the hospital. Our experienced team deal with numerous cases involving babies and young children and will be happy to provide you with detailed advice on the steps we can take on your behalf.


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