Every week in the UK, a baby dies from the relatively unknown Group B Strep infection.
A routine test in pregnant women can usually lead to simple treatment – yet it is not currently normal procedure on the NHS.
Throughout July – Group B Strep Awareness Month – national charity Group B Strep Support is urging new and expectant parents to find out more about the infection.
Group B Strep (GBS or Strep B) is a bacterium unknowingly carried by around 20-30 per cent of women.
It’s very rarely dangerous to adults, though is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, causing sepsis, pneumonia and meningitis.
It is also the most common cause of meningitis in babies during their first three months of life.
On average in the UK, two babies a day develop Group B Strep infection, of which one baby every week will die while another will survive with disability.
Lancaster mum Jade Campbell knows the dangers of GBS all too well.
Her son Max developed an early-onset GBS infection at birth in June 2014, and ended up staying in hospital for a week on antibiotics.
Thankfully, he’s since made a full recovery and is now a lively three-year-old.
Unusually, Jade knew she was carrying Group B Strep during her pregnancy, and was given antibiotics in labour in a bid to stop the infection transferring to her baby.
Sadly this didn’t prevent Max contracting the infection, but would have been acting as early treatment, and the outcome for Max could have been far worse without those antibiotics.
Jade, who lives in Morecambe Road with Max and fiance Phil Watson, was diagnosed as being a carrier of Group B Strep by chance while being treated for another infection.
“I was in my third trimester and the doctor rang up and said I had it but said I didn’t have to worry about it until the labour,” the 27-year-old said.
“One in four women have it and it’s not in any way harmful for you but it can be fatal for babies.”
Max was born at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary weighing a healthy 8lb, but midwives were put on alert as soon as he arrived.
“Once they knew about the GBS, the midwives were great and they never left us alone throughout the whole labour process,” said Jade, who is a PE teacher at Morecambe High, where Phil also teaches business studies.
“As soon as Max came out he let out a scream. We were first-time parents and didn’t really know what was happening, but the midwife said afterwards that she knew straight away it was a poorly scream. He also wasn’t breathing properly.
“We had him with us for about half an hour and then he was taken away to neonatal for a few hours to be monitored.”
Max’s infection rate had gone through the roof, and for the next few days he had to have antibiotics four times a day.
However, doctors struggled to find a vein in Max’s tiny arms and legs, and eventually Max had to be given his antibiotics through a cannula directly into his head.
He also underwent two lumbar punctures to check he hadn’t contracted meningitis.
Max and Jade remained in hospital for a week, before being allowed home.
However, two weeks later Jade found Max covered in an inflamed red rash, and the couple took him back to the RLI.
After being monitored overnight, the family was allowed home again.
“Group B Strep is a risk for the first three days after birth and then there is a risk of onset for up to three months afterwards,” Jade said.
“Max was monitored for his first year but thankfully he has absolutely no lasting effects.”
Jade said that since her experiences with Max, she has realised how little information is available about GBS.
“It was such a scary time, and there was no one really to talk to or anywhere to get research from,” she said.
“I didn’t know anything about GBS and in the end I joined a Facebook page to find out some more information about it.”
Jade discovered that pregnant women are not routinely tested for GBS in the UK, although in many other countries it is a standard procedure.
“The more awareness there is and the more people are talking about it, the more chance there is that they will start doing screening,” she said.
“Every pregnant woman deserves it. It’s absolutely ridiculous that all women aren’t automatically screened.”
Phil, 35, said: “We’ve been told it costs £12 to do the test. It seems crazy that it wouldn’t be done.
“If you know you are a carrier at least you can be prepared for it and then you know that for the birth you are in the best possible place.
“We tried not to panic too much but it’s hard when you don’t really know what could happen.”
UK charity Group B Strep Support – which is working to stop the infection in babies, and also supports families whose babies have been affected – is working with a range of partners, including law firms, test providers, health professionals and other charities to raise awareness and is encouraging everyone to get involved throughout July to help make everyone GBS aware.
Supporters have been holding ‘Big GBSS Bake Sales’ to raise funds and awareness.
This year’s theme is ‘Why Guess...when you can test?’ which is focusing on the need to make a GBS-specific test easily and freely available through the NHS.
Dr Chris Steele MBE, resident doctor on ITV’s This Morning and a patron of Group B Strep Support, said: “Group B Strep infections in newborn babies can usually be prevented.
“I’d like to see every pregnant woman in the UK offered testing for GBS – this test is a routine part of antenatal care in many countries including Canada, France, Germany and the USA.
“Until then, raising awareness is the key to saving babies’ lives. Get informed and protect your baby.”
Jane Plumb MBE, chief executive of Group B Strep Support, said: “Every new and expectant mother should be informed about Group B Strep during routine antenatal care and, if pregnant women want to be tested for it, the ‘gold standard’ ECM test should be available on the NHS.
“Most Group B Strep infections in newborn babies can be prevented. Knowing whether a mum carries Group B Strep enables her to make an informed decision about what’s right for her and her unborn baby.”
* For more information, or to share your experiences, Group B Strep Support can be contacted online at www.gbss.org.uk or by telephone on 01444 416176.