GBS is an infection carried by one in three women and it can be lethal to newborn babies. So why do so few pregnant women know about it?
Group B Streptococcus (GBS) is the primary cause of bacterial infection in newborn babies, and their mums are the unwitting carriers of the condition. It's contracted through physical contact and the bacteria lives in the vagina and rectum of a quarter of women of childbearing age. It's rarely dangerous for mums but a pregnant woman with GBS can pass it on to her baby at birth. The results can be devastating. GBS can cause preterm delivery, maternal infections, stillbirths and late miscarriages, although, thankfully, these complications aren't common. More commonly, newborns can suffer long-term mental or physical handicap, ranging from mild learning disabilities to severe mental retardation, loss of sight, loss of hearing and lung damage.
There is a reliable and low-cost test for Strep B, but it is not widely available or routinely offered. Called the Enriched Culture Method (ECM), this test is much more reliable than the standard test sometimes offered to women by the NHS. Professor Philip Steer, head of Maternal Fetal Medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, explains why it's better. "They are both swab tests, but the routine investigations done in the NHS are not specifically designed to pick up GBS. It will only pick up GBS in around 50 per cent of cases where it's present. The ECM will pick it up in more than 85-95 per cent of cases. It is far more reliable."Shockingly, although offered as standard in many countries around the world, including America, Canada, Belgium Spain, Holland, Israel and Slovenia, the ECM test is not currently widely available on the NHS.
The only real option for women who wish to test this way is to pay a private clinic for the service. The cost is just £32 but there are only two private UK clinics that offer it. The test is sent in the post so it can be done by anyone, anywhere in the UK.
If you’re not a carrier, that is great. If you are a carrier, that is also great. I always say congratulations to a woman who’s tested positive. Yes, there is a raised risk your baby will develop the infection, but there are simple steps you can take that are hugely effective at minimising that risk.
Two swabs are taken, one lower vaginal and one rectal. As GBS can naturally come and go from the vagina, the test should be done at 35-37 weeks of pregnancy. Working on a five-week window, the results will tell you whether GBS is likely to be present at birth. But is it easy to do the test yourself? Very, says Professor Steer. "It is really a cotton bud with a long stick. You put it a few centimetres into the lower vagina and squish it around. Scrape the swab around in the lower vagina and it will pick up any GBS."
The treatment offered is intravenous antibiotics given every four hours during labour, which significantly reduces the chances of infection to the baby. "If you take a normal, pregnant woman carrying GBS at delivery, the chances of her baby developing a GBS infection where no preventative medicine is being given is around 1 in 300," explains Jane Plumb, who set up Group B Strep Support after losing her own baby to the infection. "If the same woman has antibiotics, the risk drops to smaller than 1 in 6000."
Professor Steer hopes that in the future the ECM test will be widely available, ensuring women are aware of their GBS status. "Then we can help them to work out what it means to them, and support their choices. The idea that you don't tell women because you will worry them is a cop-out, we need to tell them in a way that isn't alarming. After all, knowledge is power."
One mum shares her pregnancy and birth experience with GBS
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