Group B strep: Is it time pregnant women were offered screening?
The day after my first daughter Ava was born, I noticed there was something wrong.
It seems funny to say that as I had only known her for one day and one night, and yet I knew her. She was making weird little jerking movements – she wasn't just startling as tiny babies do, she looked like she was having tiny little fits, and her moans told me something was upsetting or hurting her.
Naturally, sod's law dictated that she had these episodes when only I was looking, and they stopped instantly I could get a doctor or midwife to take a look. They didn't even take her temperature. But after several hours of pushing, undeterred by staff thinking I was an hysterical new mother, they agreed to test her.
They did a lumbar puncture (I couldn't watch) and various blood tests, after which they told me they had found 'an infection' and they put her straight on to a week's course of antibiotics. They allowed me to stay in hospital for the entire week to be with her.
I never dug, or insisted they tell me what that mystery infection was, so I don't know to this day. I was hazy and ill from labour followed by a C-section. I was exhausted and just happy my baby girl was being treated. Whatever it was, it was caught early.
But since then I have heard quite a lot about group B strep, a bacteria which can be passed from mother to baby during birth (natural or C-section). It affects one in every 2,000 infants, and is the leading cause of serious infections in newborns.
It's relatively rare and most babies make a full recovery when it's found and treated – but occasionally the effects can be devastating; early onset can lead to pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning, and 10% of infected babies die.
In the UK, the NHS doesn't offer routine screening for group B Strep (it's available in just a handful of hospitals), but the prospect is now being considered. You might well not know that the National Screening Committee (NSC) is currently holding public consultation regarding the potential introduction of antenatal screening. It began in July, and will conclude on October 23.
Jane Plumb MBE, Chief Executive of the charity Group B Strep Support (GBSS), says she is worried the government is being deliberately quiet about the consultation because, she believes: "It doesn't want to hear from health professionals working at the coal-face, or families directly affected by group B strep.
"It's shocking that the NSC isn't doing more to raise awareness of this consultation. The overwhelming evidence from other countries shows that antenatal screening for group B strep is the most effective way to prevent these infections in newborn babies and publicly funded research over the last five years has repeatedly shown it's cost effective, too."
Indeed the cost of offering screening to a pregnant woman (who would be offered antibiotics at intervals from the start, and during labour should they test positive) has been estimated at £10.53 whereas, says GBSS, the cost of treating the preventable infections, not to mention ongoing hospital visits for more serious cases, is huge.
The charity says the NSC is advising against the introduction of group B strep screening, and is urging pregnant women, parents and health professionals to make their voices known if they disagree. It seems many do – a 16,000-signature petition was recently handed to the Department of Health calling for better prevention of group B strep in babies, and a survey last year showed 92% of women think group B strep information and testing should be offered to pregnant women across the board.
While some experts are concerned that routinely offering antibiotics to pregnant women testing positive might cause the bacteria to develop a resistance, GBSS says that hasn't happened in over 15 years of antibiotics being offered in the USA, and is adamant that screening is the only way to go.
Jane Plumb added: "The financial and human costs of these infections are significant – and all the more heartbreaking because they are usually preventable.
"In countries which routinely screen, the incidence of group B strep infections in newborns has fallen by 80% or more. What is currently done in the UK to prevent these infections simply isn't working – it's time to change to something which has been tried and tested, has been shown to work and is something that women want: antenatal group B strep screening."
GBSS has set up a web page with detailed information about the consultation and the various ways people can respond to the NSC. GBSS can also be contacted on 01444 416176.
The public consultation closes on October 23 2012.
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