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Group B Strep Awareness Month: increasing awareness amongst pregnant women

Posted: 03/07/2020

July is Group B Strep Awareness Month, which aims to raise awareness of the condition, particularly amongst pregnant women: while Group B Strep is generally harmless, it can be passed to the baby during delivery and, in some cases, can make the baby very poorly.

What is Group B Strep?

Group B Strep is a type of bacteria called streptococcal bacteria. It is present in the vagina and/or rectum, and around 20-40% of women carry it. Its presence is very common and while it may not cause any problems for an expectant mother, it can spread to the baby during labour and cause the baby to develop serious infections such as sepsis, pneumonia or meningitis.

The NHS reports that the risk of this happening is around 1 in every 1,750 cases, but the risk increases if the baby is born preterm (before 37 weeks), if the mother has a temperature during labour, if the mother’s waters broke before labour started or if Group B Strep was detected in a previous pregnancy.

In most cases, Group B Strep will cause symptoms to show within the first six days of the baby’s life. In babies, symptoms can include the following:

  • being very sleepy/unresponsive;
  • any grunting/noisy breathing/difficulty breathing;
  • inconsolable crying;
  • being unusually floppy;
  • not feeding well/not keeping milk down;
  • a high or low temperature ;
  • low blood pressure;
  • low blood sugar; and
  • changes in skin colour, eg blotchy skin.

It is important to be aware of these symptoms, as Group B Strep needs to be treated promptly in babies.

Treating babies with Group B Strep

A Group B Strep infection needs to be treated quickly and aggressively if a baby shows signs of the infection – treatment is usually in the form of intravenous antibiotics, which will be given for at least seven days. With prompt treatment, the majority of babies are treated successfully with intravenous antibiotics.

Sadly, 1 in 16 babies with Group B Strep infection will die, even with full intensive care, and 1 in 10 survivors of Group B Strep infection will have a long-term disability as a result of meningitis or sepsis, which can include:

  • hearing loss;
  • sight loss;
  • speech and language difficulties;
  • epilepsy;
  • amputation;
  • growth problems; and
  • behavioural/learning difficulties.

Group B Strep testing

Group B Strep has no symptoms, so the only way to know if an individual is carrying the bacteria is for the individual to undergo a vaginal/rectal swab or a urine test. This is called an Enriched Culture Medium, or ECM, test. The test is simple and safe, and the clinical guidelines provide that in some cases, pregnant women should be offered an ECM test for free on the NHS. However, not all NHS hospitals are currently offering this service.

Testing is usually done between 35 and 37 weeks of pregnancy, and if the testing cannot be provided by the NHS, pregnant women can choose to purchase a test privately. This usually costs around £35, but during Group B Strep Awareness month (this July), the test fee has been reduced to £32. Please visit this website for more information on testing.

What happens next if an individual tests positive for Group B Strep?

If an individual tests positive for Group B Strep and is not pregnant, they do not need to worry, as carrying Group B Strep is normal. However, if an expectant mother has tested positive for Group B strep during pregnancy, the UK national guidelines provide that she should be offered intravenous antibiotics during labour. The mother will not be offered intravenous antibiotics before labour has started, as there is no evidence to show that this reduces the chance of infection in new-borns. However, antibiotics are highly effective if given as soon as possible after labour starts, and then at regular intervals until the baby is born.

Emily Hartland, a solicitor in the clinical negligence team at Penningtons Manches Cooper, states: “Testing for Group B Strep is becoming more common, but it is not offered routinely and many pregnant women are still not aware of it, nor the risks it can pose to their baby. Whilst the risk is fairly low, the consequences can be devastating, especially if the infection is not identified and treated quickly. This is because the infections that Group Strep B causes, such as meningitis and sepsis, are aggressive infections and progress rapidly. Sadly, we act for a number of clients whose babies have contracted Group B Strep infection and subsequently developed long-term health conditions as a result. In some cases, our clients should have been tested and given the option of intravenous antibiotics during labour, and in other cases, there was a delay in diagnosing and treating a Group B Strep infection once their baby was born. We fully support charities such as Group B Strep Support in promoting Group B Strep Awareness Month. The hope is that more women will become aware of the condition and the steps that can be taken if they test positive for Group B Strep.”

If you are worried about any of the issues mentioned in this article, please do get in touch as a member of the clinical negligence team would be happy to discuss your concerns with you.

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Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP is a limited liability partnership registered in England and Wales with registered number OC311575 and is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority under number 419867.

Penningtons Manches Cooper LLP