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Group B Strep national conference 2015 and GBS screening trial in North West London

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    Ali Cloak considers recent evidence in support of the ongoing campaigns to ensure that routine screening for GBS infection is available to all pregnant women.

    By Ali Cloak

This week, I attended the national one day conference on prevention of Group B Strep infection in neonates, which was hosted by the Group B Strep Support charity and Meningitis Research Foundation.

A number of eminent speakers debated the current challenges posed by Group B Strep infection, the adequacy of the current national guidance and why screening is not offered to all pregnant women in the UK unlike in a number of other developed countries. The conference was especially pertinent given the recent media coverage on the pilot scheme at Northwick Park Hospital, where they found that a year long trial of universal screening significantly reduced rates of GBS infection.

Why is prevention of GBS infection so important?

Group B Strep infection, or GBS as it’s more commonly known, is the most common cause of severe infection such as meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia in newborns. A mother, who is positive for GBS can pass the infection on to their baby during labour.  Currently the NHS does not offer a national screening programme for pregnant women, instead choosing a risk factor approach.

Current national guidance states that only women whose babies are considered to be at risk for Group B Strep are offered screening. This is contrary to the approach adopted in many other developed countries, where they offer universal screening to pregnant women to test for the infection. Where the infection is identified in pregnant women it can be treated with antibiotics to prevent the infection being acquired by the newborn. Where the infection is not recognised, and antibiotics not offered and the baby becomes infected with GBS, the infection can be fatal or cause life-limiting disabilities if not treated very quickly.

Northwick Park Hospital screening trial

The London North West Healthcare NHS Trust, ran a trial recently where they offered screening to all pregnant woman. They saw an 80% reduction in the number of babies developing GBS following screening with enhanced culture media and a course of antibiotics for carriers.

Dr Gopal Rao, Consultant Microbiologist, launched the pilot scheme and spoke of it’s findings:

The results from the pilot are really encouraging. We have seen an 80% reduction in the number of babies being born with GBS, from 1 in every 1,000 births in unscreened mothers to 1 in every 5,000 births in screened mothers.”

National charity GBS Support has long petitioned for a screening approach, rather than a risk based one, to be adopted in the UK to reduce the number of preventable deaths due to GBS. Their ‘Why Guess?’ campaign, which my colleague Kerstin wrote about earlier this week , is the latest to raise awareness and to call for change.

Charity founder and Chief Executive, Jane Plumb, said:

The findings of the pilot show, for the first time in the UK, how effective screening pregnant women with GBS-specific tests is at reducing these devastating infections in newborn babies.”

The message from the conference I attended, the recent screening trial and the ongoing campaign is quite clear – GBS can be a devastating infection for newborn babies and simple tests can significantly reduce the numbers of babies infected and therefore these tests need to be made routinely available.

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