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Group B Strep Awareness Month: How the current standard of care leaves babies at risk

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    As Group B Strep Awareness Month remains in ‘full swing’ this blog describes why campaigners have repeatedly called for screening for GBS infection to be offered to all expectant mothers and how the UK’s current standard of care leaves some babies at risk.

    By Abigail Ringer

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Group B Streptococcal (GBS) bacteria is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies and is passed on to babies by their mothers. Last week my colleague, Ali Cloak, concluded the first week of Group B Strep Awareness Month by writing about the campaign “Why Guess…when you can test?” which advocates the universal screening of all pregnant women with the gold standard test for GBS. In the US and other parts of the world, it is recommended that all pregnant women are screened for GBS using ECM (enriched culture medium) testing which is deemed to be the most reliable and accurate form of testing, but similar recommendations have not been adopted here in the UK.

More about Group B Streptococcus Infection

Group B Streptococci are a type of bacteria that many people carry unknowingly but babies exposed to the bacteria may experience problems such as pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis leading to brain injury. However, if doctors are aware that an expectant mother is carrying GBS, through screening for the infection, then antibiotics are given to her during labour. When antibiotics are given from the start of labour or waters breaking, this has proved to be very effective at preventing GBS infection in the baby.

Screening & Treating

In France, Germany and the United States, all pregnant women are routinely screened for GBS during their pregnancy. In the UK however, the current guidelines prepared by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists recommend that screening for GBS should not be offered to all pregnant women and women are only provided with antibiotics during labour if:

  • GBS has been identified incidentally during pregnancy whilst testing for another infection; and/or
  • they have previously had a baby with a neonatal GBS infection; and/or
  • there are signs of infection, such as raised temperature, during labour.

During Group B Strep Awareness Month, campaigners are continuing to call for an overhaul of these current guidelines, which arguably leave many babies at risk, and continue to argue for routine testing for all women.

The Legal Issues

I have become aware of the issues relating to testing and treatment for GBS infection through my work as a clinical negligence lawyer, acting for children who have suffered injury due to contracting GBS infection which was not treated.

When appropriate medical treatment for GBS is not offered to expectant mothers or new born babies and this leads to a baby suffering avoidable injuries, then there may be grounds to pursue a medical negligence claim. Examples include where there has been a failure to:

  • Failing to screen a mother with risk factors for GBS infection;
  • Offer an expectant mother, known to carry GBS, antibiotics during labour;
  • Recognise the signs of GBS infection during labour;
  • Adequately monitor new born babies, deemed to be at risk of GBS infection, for signs of infection; or
  • Administer antibiotics to newborn babies showing signs of GBS infection promptly.

Arguably, if routine testing was offered to all women, then it would avoid or at least very much reduce the risk of missing a diagnosis of GBS in women with specific risk factors, and the associated risks for their baby.

Next week, my colleague will be writing about the impact that undiagnosed and untreated GBS can have on newborn babies and their families.

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