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Support group urges prevention of Group B Strep infections in newborns PDF Print Email

July 2011 is International Group B Strep Awareness Month and, although many western countries offer pregnant women testing for group B Strep which is by far the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, we don’t in the UK.  Other countries have seen their incidence of group B Streptococcal (GBS) infection in newborn babies fall dramatically – in the US1 by 80%.  There is no systematic screening in the UK, where the incidence continues to rise - since prevention strategies were introduced in the UK in 2003, the incidence has increased by 16% (20032 data, 20093 data).


Group B Streptococcus (GBS or group B Strep) is a bacterium that is carried by around 1 in 4 pregnant women – it’s usually harmless.  It can be passed from the mother to her baby around birth and, without preventative medicine, an estimated one out of every 300 babies born to women carrying GBS would become seriously ill – approximately 700 sick babies a year, of whom 75 babies would die and another 40 would suffer serious on-going health issues.

Since 2003, the advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists4 has been to give antibiotics in labour to ‘higher risk women’ including those who have previously had a baby with GBS infection, who develop a GBS urinary infection during pregnancy, or who have symptoms such as fever during labour – yet fewer than 60% of the mothers of babies who develop GBS infection have these risk factors and so this strategy can never prevent at least 40% of these infections.  The most common risk factor for a baby developing GBS infection is the mother carrying GBS when the baby is born but, without testing pregnant women, many mothers whose babies are ‘higher risk’ will not be identified, so antibiotics in labour will not be offered and these infections won’t be prevented.

Recent research5 suggests that the NHS could make significant cost savings by introducing sensitive testing for all pregnant women at 35-37 weeks and offering antibiotics in labour accordingly.  The authors found that “The current strategy of risk-factor-based screening is not cost-effective compared with screening based on culture.”


Currently only a handful of UK hospitals offer pregnant women a sensitive test for GBS, using the Health Protection Agency’s National Standard Method6 for detecting GBS carriage.  Most mothers-to-be who want to be tested have to rely on a postal service available privately for around £32.  But most pregnant women aren’t even aware of GBS - and most women are not told about GBS by their healthcare provider.  A recent survey by Bounty Parenting Club7 found that 42% of women who are aware of GBS were informed about GBS from a pregnancy book or magazine while 21% were told about it by a friend or another mum.  Just 20% were informed by a midwife, 4% through their family doctor and 2% from a clinic at hospital.  This means that even when women are willing and able to pay for a private test, they are being denied that option by not knowing about it.


Group B Strep Support has been campaigning for a screening approach for preventing group B Strep infection in newborn babies for ten years.  Chief Executive Jane Plumb says, “It’s clear that the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists’ risk-based guidelines are less effective than testing at preventing group B Strep infections, deaths and disabilities in newborn babies.  The evidence shows that a risk-based strategy also costs the NHS more than routine testing.  What more will it take for the Government to do what many other western countries have already done and offer pregnant women routine testing for GBS?”


Professor Philip Steer, Chairman of the GBSS Medical Advisory Committee, says, “Proposals for high quality trials of screening in the UK have been turned down because of lack of funding.  In the meantime, other countries such as the USA, Australia, Spain, Italy and Germany have all introduced screening and seen major falls in the incidence of this deadly disease – in the USA by 80% since screening was introduced1.  I can see no reason why screening would not be equally effective in the UK and it would save money as well as lives.”


July 2011 is International Group B Strep Awareness Month – during the month, Group B Strep Support will be sending information to maternity units to help them inform more pregnant women about group B Strep so they can decide whether they want to be tested or not.  Volunteers are contacting their MP to ask for their support for sensitive group B Strep tests to be made available via the NHS to all pregnant women.



1. ECM tests for GBS are only readily available privately in the UK and from a handful of NHS hospitals.  Testing packs are free, and a postal service for carrying out the test costs around £32 from The Doctors Laboratory on 020 7307 7373 or Group B Strep Support receives no money from any laboratory.  More information is available at

2. Group B Strep Support is a UK charity set up in 1996 to prevent GBS infection in newborn babies.

3. GBS is a normal bacterium carried by up to 30% of adults.  It can be passed from mother to baby around labour.  For most babies this causes no problems: for others it’s deadly, causing blood infection, pneumonia and meningitis.


Research Papers:

1 Jordan HT, Farley MM, Craig A, Mohle-Boetani J, Harrison LH, Petit S et al. Revisiting the need for vaccine prevention of late-onset neonatal group B streptococcal disease: a multistate, population-based analysis. Pediatr Infect Dis J 2008; 27(12):1057-1064.

2  Health Protection Agency. Pyogenic & non-pyogenic Streptococcal bacteraemia, England, Wales & NI: 2008. 2009 Nov. Health Protection Report Vol 3 No 46

3  Health Protection Agency. Pyogenic and non-pyogenic streptococcal bacteraemia, England, Wales and Northern Ireland: 2009.  Health Protection Report 2010; 4(46): Bacteraemia

4 Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Prevention of Early Onset Neonatal Group B Streptococcal Disease. London: Royal Colllege of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 2003. Guideline No. 36.

5 Kaambwa B, Bryan S, Gray J, Milner P, Daniels J, Khan KS et al. Cost-effectiveness of rapid tests and other existing strategies for screening and management of early-onset group B streptococcus during labour. BJOG 2010; 117(13):1616-1627.

6 Health Protection Agency (2006). Processing swabs for Group B streptococcal carriage. National Standard Method BSOP 58 Issue 2.

7 Bounty Parenting Club - 2,226 interviews were carried out via the Bounty Word of Mum™ research panel, ranging from women in the early stages of pregnancy to those with a youngest child of two years old.