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Group B Strep infection : how can it lead to cerebral palsy?

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    This fifth blog in our series relating to injuries suffered around the time of birth, discusses Group B Streptococcus infection, an infection which can be passed from mother to baby during labour, and the importance of prompt diagnosis and treatment to avoid serious injuries to babies.

    By Kerstin Kubiak

Group B Strep infection (also known as GBS) is a bacterial infection which can be acquired by a baby from their mother during birth; if it takes hold and goes untreated it can lead to the development of meningitis with the associated risks of serious brain injury and cerebral palsy.

There has been a huge awareness campaign by the Charity Group B Strep Support, whose primary aim is to prevent life threatening Group B infection in newborns.

GBS infection is easily diagnosed in mothers by a cheap and effective test allowing clinicians to offer mother and/or baby prophylactic antibiotics at the time of birth. There is no routine testing of pregnant women in the UK and therefore every year many hundreds of newborn babies are infected with GBS. With severe infection which is not effectively treated with antibiotics the consequences can be horrendous, leading to brain damage and cerebral palsy. Sadly for some babies it can also prove fatal.

Even without routine testing, mothers and babies infected with GBS can present with symptoms which should mandate giving antibiotics, and failures by the hospital to do so could be negligent and lead to a claim for damages for the injuries suffered.

The tragedy of Group B Strep infection:

I currently represent 3 children who have suffered severe neurological injuries as a result of Group B Strep infection in the neonatal period. I will describe one as a case example:

Baby A’s mother was admitted to a hospital in suspected early labour and was noted to have a raised temperature and possible infection. Vaginal swabs were undertaken which came back positive for Strep B infection, the results were not however highlighted in the medical records. The mother was discharged and admitted to a different hospital, but they negligently failed to contact the previous hospital to ascertain the swab results and therefore were unaware of the mother’s infection and the mother did not receive antibiotics during labour.

On delivery, baby A was also infected with GBS, but was not treated with antibiotics after his birth, he went onto develop the more unusual late onset GBS infection and was readmitted at 7 days of age in a critical condition. He had developed systemic infection and meningitis. Meningitis is the inflammation of the membranes of the brain and spinal column; this inflammatory process can cause permanent brain damage and subsequent cerebral palsy. Baby A now needs a 24 care package, adapted accommodation, therapies and aids and equipment.

The fight for change:

The awful consequences for Baby A, and other babies affected in a similar way, could have easily been avoided with early effective and inexpensive treatment. The more informed clinicians are about the mother’s status as a GBS carrier, the better the options open to them to take steps to stop the infection developing.

Group B Strep Support have launched a national campaign, with a simple message, “Why guess when you can test?”. The charity wants the UK government to fund gold standard ECM testing of all pregnant mothers; presently testing is only available to mothers who procure it privately. This really isn’t good enough given the potentially catastrophic consequences of this infection.  The charity refer to evidence from other countries where this testing is routinely available and which have proven a reduction in the number of newborns infected and suffering these catastrophic injuries as a result.

The next blog in our series will look at the importance of care provided to a baby following their birth, when their brains are still vulnerable to damage, and specific conditions which must be treated correctly and promptly to avoid serious injuries.

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