You may have heard of Group B Strep (AKA GBS or Strep B) before, but what exactly is it?
Group B Strep (GBS) is common bacterium which is normally quite harmless. Around one in five of us naturally carry GBS in our bodies, and it has no symptoms.
In relatively rare cases, GBS can cause serious infection in newborn babies – typically sepsis, meningitis and pneumonia. GBS is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies (about 1 in 1,000 births), and of meningitis in babies under 3 months.
The good news is that most GBS infections in newborn babies can be prevented with the careful use of antibiotics in labour.
So how do I know I’m carrying GBS? Will I be tested for it?
Not as a matter of routine. Many developed countries, such as the USA, France and Switzerland, run antenatal screening programmes for GBS (usually at 35-37 weeks of pregnancy). But in the UK, we don’t specifically test for GBS, although GBS may show up in tests that are done for other reasons, such as swabs taken to check out vaginal discharge. The NHS test done in this situation isn’t specifically looking for GBS and will often miss it even when it’s present.
There is a much better, more reliable test available called the ECM (Enriched Culture Medium) test which, although available privately for around £35, is rarely available in the NHS. One of the things national charity Group B Strep Support is pressing for through the ‘Why Guess when you can test?’ campaign is making the ECM test widely available through the NHS.
Some NHS trusts do use the ECM test, so it’s worth asking – and listed here are the places which offer the ECM test, both NHS and privately (including a home-testing pack).
Prevention better than cure
There are certain situations that increase the chance of a newborn baby developing GBS infection. These are known as ‘risk factors’, and include: GBS being detected during the current pregnancy, Mum having a raised temperature during labour, labour starting before 37 weeks of pregnancy and waters breaking 18 or more hours before your baby is born.
UK guidelines recommend that that a pregnant Mum should be offered antibiotics in labour if GBS has been detected during the current pregnancy, if she’s previously had a baby with GBS infection, and if she has a fever in labour. These antibiotics massively reduce the risk of the newborn baby developing a group B Strep infection.
Most GBS infections in babies show within their first two days, though more rarely, these can develop up to around 3 months of age (after which, they are very rare indeed).
Researchers around the world are working on developing a vaccine that will one day prevent almost all GBS infection in babies, but it’s early days. The vaccine won’t be available for at least the next 10-15 years, if not longer.
While many pregnant Mums who have GBS detected during their pregnancies will want antibiotics in labour, not all will – others may decide not to have them unless there are additional risk factors. Whatever a Mum chooses, knowing about group B Strep when you’re pregnant means you can, working with your health professionals, make an informed decision about what is right for you, and your baby.
The Group B Strep Support website has a wealth of information and frequently asked questions for parents to be, as well as links to professional guidelines, research papers, and free informative leaflets/posters.
This post has been written by Group B Strep Support, they’re very friendly and love to chat about group B Strep (no surprise there) – do email or call them with your questions and concerns firstname.lastname@example.org | 01444 416176