Pregnant women should be tested for Group B Strep to save the lives of dozens of babies every year, campaigners have warned.
Group B Strep is the most recurrent cause of life-threatening illness in newborn babies, with an average of two babies a day identified with the infection. Each week, one of these babies goes on to die while another develops an ongoing long-term disability.
More than one in five women carry Group B Strep, a common bacterium that normally causes no harm and no symptoms. However, its presence in the vagina or rectum means babies can be exposed to it during labor and birth.
Pregnant women in Britain are not routinely tested for its presence, but a trial led by the University of Nottingham is examining whether such a move would be effective. Campaigners have called for more hospitals to join the pilot to ensure it is successful.
Jane Plumb, chief executive of campaign group, Group B Strep Support, said: “It’s taken over 20 years of campaigning to get this trial commissioned. It’s devastating that only 30 of the 80 hospitals needed to have signed up. We can’t let this trial fail.
“We need to fight for the 800 babies per year that are infected with this too often deadly infection. We need more hospitals to take part. We need to rally together and get this trial over the finish line.”
Ms Plumb said the majority of Group B Strep infections in babies are preventable.
“If we don’t know, then they can’t be offered the protective antibiotics in labour,” she said. “Families so often tell us that the first time they hear of Group B Strep is after their baby falls ill. For a mostly preventable infection, this is unforgivable – and must change.
“We want to encourage every hospital to take part. We need people to ask for their MP’s support. This is an opportunity to save so many babies’ lives, but we only have six months to get hospitals on board. It really is now or never.”
The proportion of newborns in England affected by Group B Strep is more than double that in many other high-income nations, most of whom have rolled out regular testing of pregnant women.
Iwan Thomas MBE, a British Olympic 400m sprinter, lent his backing to the campaign to urge more hospitals to sign up to the trial.
“Watching Teddy covered in tubes and fighting for his life in intensive care was by far the worst experience of my life,” the athlete said of his first child who developed the illness after he was born.
“Fortunately, Teddy’s made a great recovery from his group B Strep infection, but I know there are those less fortunate whose children have died or survived with life-changing disabilities.“
He explained he is very “passionate” the trial goes ahead to ensure “other families don’t have to go through what I and so many others have”.
Thomas added: “It’s outrageous that in 2022 babies are getting sick and dying from a preventable infection.”
Group B Strep frequently develops in pregnant women and is not generally dangerous but can be in rare cases. It also places the woman at slight chance of having a miscarriage or other baby loss.
Dr Carol Baker, whose academic research resulted in group B Strep testing being introduced across America, said: “The US introduced routine testing for group B Strep for all pregnant women 20 years ago, and the rates of early-onset group B Strep infection in babies subsequently fell by over 80 per cent.
“Other countries have seen similar declines; UK rates are increasing. This trial and the results are vital in stemming the rising tide of Group B Strep infection in UK babies.”