The danger of group B Strep and the fight for life
A bereaved mum talks to Lisa Salmon about her campaign to introduce routine testing for the preventable common infection that killed her only son, and infects hundreds of newborn babies every year
AROUND a quarter of pregnant women unknowingly carry a bacterial infection that can kill their newborn baby. Yet the UK, unlike many other countries, doesn't screen for this preventable killer.
Now a mother whose newborn son died after contracting the bacteria from her is spearheading a petition demanding that the NHS tests every pregnant woman for the infection, group B streptococcus (GBS).
Around 20 to 30 per cent of healthy people carry GBS in their bowel as part of their normal flora.
Provided the GBS stays there, it's symptomless and usually harmless to adults.
But in women it also colonises the vagina and from there it can be passed to babies around labour.
In the UK, on average, one newborn baby a day develops a GBS infection, one baby a week dies from it, and one baby a fortnight survives the infection but is left with long-term disabilities, including cerebral palsy, brain damage, blindness, deafness and amputated limbs.
It's the UK's most common cause of severe bacterial infection in newborn babies, and of meningitis in babies under three months.
When solicitor Fiona Paddon gave birth by emergency caesarean section to a baby boy in May last year, he had contracted GBS from her and was seriously ill.
When she awoke from the general anaesthetic, she was told that her only child, Edward, was fighting for his life in the special care baby unit. He died nine days later.
Yet if Paddon, 40, had been tested for the infection while pregnant, a positive result would have prompted simple antibiotic treatment which would have saved Edward's life.
"It's almost impossible to think that your baby will die, and to be told that I could have been tested, and then successfully treated, for the very thing that killed Edward is almost too much to bear," she says.
"If I'd been tested, I would've been given antibiotics in labour which almost always prevent tragedies like ours." Along with the charity Group B Strep Support, Paddon has set up a petition asking the Government to introduce GBS testing on the NHS for all pregnant women.
Many other developed countries test all pregnant women for GBS, using an £11 vaginal and rectal swab test which is rarely available through the NHS.
Since 2003, the UK has used risk factors to guess which pregnant women might be at risk of carrying the infection.
However, Paddon says the risk factors are poor at predicting which babies will develop GBS, and the number of babies contracting the infection is rising.
"Had I been tested, our beautiful son would be here today," says Paddon, from London. "For Edward's sake, and all babies like him, we can't afford to lose any more lives."
Jane Plumb, chief executive of Group B Strep Support, says: "It's time to stop this needless waste of life.
"Not only is it a human tragedy, it's a huge drain on NHS resources.
"Too many babies who have contracted Group B Strep infection die or are left with conditions which require long-term support far more expensive than a £11 test.
"Antenatal care is failing pregnant women and their families by putting them at the mercy of a pregnancy lottery."
Professor Philip Steer, chair of the Group B Strep Support medical advisory panel and Emeritus professor of obstetrics at Imperial College, London, explains that in most cases, the baby copes perfectly well with being colonised.
"But in about one in 200 cases, the GBS invades the baby and makes it sick, usually causing either pneumonia or meningitis," he says.
In the UK, early-onset GBS disease (within the first six days and usually within the first 24 hours from birth) affects around 400 babies a year.
About 10 per cent of these will die and another five per cent will survive with a disability.
In the USA, as in most other developed countries, routine screening and treatment has reduced early-onset GBS disease by over 80 per cent.
In the UK, where screening isn't routine, the incidence of early-onset GBS disease hasn't fallen at all, and the current rate is now 50 per cent higher than in the USA.
"Were screening introduced, it could be expected to reduce the burden of disease in a similar way to that in the USA," stresses Professor Steer.
"If a woman is tested for GBS at 35 to 37 weeks and is found to be a carrier, she can be given intravenous penicillin in labour. This will prevent 80 to 90per cent of early onset GBS disease in the babies born to these women."
:: To sign the petition, visit http://tinyurl.com/nunz425