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Newborn babies at risk from Group B Strep bacteria

Posted on 4th May 2020

Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is a type of bacteria, which can cause a significant risk of injury and/or death to newborn babies.

Two in five people have this bacteria living in their body, usually in the vagina or rectum and so it is a common bacteria1. About 25% of all healthy adult women carry GBS bacteria2 which can cause Group Strep B infection.

What is Group B Strep?

GBS can be passed from a mother to the baby during labour and birth. In the UK and Ireland, about 500 newborn babies develop GBS infection every year3. This can cause babies to suffer with extremely serious illnesses including pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia, leading in some cases to severe brain injury and death.

In rare circumstances, GBS can cause an infection in the womb before a baby is born, which can then cause a baby to be stillborn. Hence GBS infection in babies can have devastating consequences for the baby and also their families.

Group B Strep symptoms

Most women do not show signs of GBS but it can cause the following symptoms in adults:

  • Sepsis
  • Infections of the skin or soft tissue
  • Infection of bones or joints
  • Pneumonia
  • Urinary Tract Infection

Women with these symptoms (particularly during pregnancy) should be tested for GBS infection and treated. It is possible that medical staff may be found to be in breach of duty of care in cases in which this is not done.

Treatment for Group B Strep in pregnancy

Guidance published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists4 in 2017, confirmed that as a prophylactic to reduce the risk of injury from GBS, medical staff should recommend antibiotics for a women during labour in the following circumstances:

  • labour is premature, before 37 weeks of pregnancy
  • a fever of 38 degrees C or higher is present during labour
  • a positive GBS swab was obtained or a known GBS urinary tract infection was diagnosed during pregnancy
  • a baby was born previously to the patient with GBS

Medical staff may also be in breach of duty in instances where this is not done, resulting in medical negligence.

Medical negligence and GBS

In December 2018, Group B Strep Support5, a charity working to stop GBS infection and who support affected families, published a report looking at 32 cases of potential or admitted clinical negligence where GBS infection was suspected or confirmed between 2006 and 2018.

The report found that medical staff were negligent in that they:

  1. Failed to follow either local or national guidelines
  2. Failed to escalate cases appropriately
  3. Missed signs of infection either in hospital or when reported by parents

The report stated that settled cases and those in which liability had been admitted had the value of nearly £40 million. This figure excluded ongoing cases.

GBS screening in the UK

Whilst routine screening for GBS is undertaken in some European countries (including France, Italy and Switzerland) and also in the US, it is not carried out in the UK.

The UK National Screening Committee (NSC)6 does not consider screening to be useful. It is difficult to understand this decision when screening for GBS merely involves taking a swab from the vagina or rectum, or a urine sample.

Once GBS is detected and to prevent early onset disease, intrapartum antibiotic prophylaxis7, usually intravenous penicillin, is the recommended treatment internationally. The UK however recommends a risk- based strategy, whereby only pregnant women presenting with risk factors for early onset GBS infection are offered antibiotic prophylaxis in labour.

The routine screening solution

Given that GBS is in fact the most common cause of neonatal sepsis and meningitis in many developed countries and that GBS infection causes serious illnesses in babies and also death, it is further difficult to understand why the NSC does not consider routine screening for GBS to be necessary.

With routine screening, it is likely that there will be a reduction in newborn babies suffering with GBS infection and developing a serious illness. Undoubtedly, routine screening will save lives.

If your baby has been affected by GBS infection and you believe that the care/treatment that you received may have been substandard, please contact Emily Welstead at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors by emailing ewelstead@hja.net or calling 0808 231 6369. Alternatively request a call back online. 

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1) https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/group-b-strep/

2) https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/directorate-public-health/health-protection/group-b-streptococcus

3) https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2017/09/group-b-strep-preturm-labour-baby.aspx

4) https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/patient-information-leaflets/pregnancy/pi-gbs-pregnancy-newborn.pdf

5) https://gbss.org.uk/

6) https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/uk-national-screening-committee-uk-nsc

7) https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/research–audit/neonatal_summary_050207a.pdf

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