GBS in the UK: Patient Education Takes Center Stage

Within the UK and Ireland, an estimated 517 newborn children are diagnosed with a group B streptococcus infection each year. More commonly referred to as GBS, group B strep is a common bacteria found in the body of which most adults do not show any signs or symptoms. Healthy women often carry group B strep bacteria in their urinary tract, gut, or vagina, and while it does not pose any serious health issues to adults, it can be devastating to a newly born child.

When group B strep bacteria is passed on to a child during labour, complications like neonatal sepsis, pneumonia, or meningitis may be the result. For first-time mothers, understanding the risk factors of GBS and the diagnosis of early-onset GBS infection in newborns is crucial to delivering a healthy baby.

Recognising the Risk Factors

While most adult women who carry the GBS bacteria experience no adverse effects, their newborn children may be negatively impacted if the risk factors for developing an infection are not known. Most newborns exposed to GBS before or during labour are healthy, and remain so, even though one in three women pass the bacteria along during delivery. It is the one in one hundred newborns who develop an infection that need to be the focus on expectant mothers’ attention.

Babies are more likely to develop early-onset GBS infection when the mother:

• Goes into labour pre-term, or before reaching her 37th week of pregnancy

• Has a fever of 38 degrees C or higher during labour

• Had a positive swab for GBS or a urinary tract infection with GBS during pregnancy

• Had a previous child born with a GBS infection

For women who do not fall into the high-risk categories listed above, having a child born with a GBS infection that leads to sepsis, pneumonia, or meningitis is rare. However, premature newborns are the most at risk given their underdeveloped immune system and inability to fight off an infection like GBS. The good news is that when these known risk factors are in place, expectant mothers are often given antibiotics during labour and delivery to protect their newborn child from developing an infection early on.

Focusing on Prevention

The early onset of GBS infection in newborn children can have a devastating impact on the life and well-being of the child, and create emotional turmoil for the parents should GBS not be treated or prevented from the start.

In a recent initiative to provide in-depth education surrounding group B strep and its implications for pregnant women and their soon-to-be children, two organisations have come together to develop a new leaflet on GBS. A partnership between the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and Group B Strep Support, a campaigning charity group, has resulted in a patient educational tool that is intended to minimise the risk of infection in newborns. The leaflet will be given to all first-time expectant mothers throughout the UK, during antenatal appointments.

The reason the leaflet is making news throughout patient advocacy groups and medical communities alike is the fact that group B strep and the infections it may cause in newborns are not widely discussed. A representative from a law firm in the UK that manages negligence cases relating to childbirth explains that providing the leaflet to first-time mothers is a step in the right direction.

With enhanced education surrounding GBS, the rate of incidents for early-onset GBS infections in newborns, and the life-altering effects a related infection can have on the life of a young child and his or her family is necessary for getting expectant mothers the prevention and treatment they need in a timely fashion.

Throughout the NHS, screening for GBS among women is not routinely done, given the potential cost of testing for a bacteria that is present in many adult patients. However, an ongoing debate has been developing among the healthcare system and the campaigning organisations throughout the country to have screening as a necessary part of the prenatal care process.

Adding screening as a routine tool in pregnancy care may not be coming soon to the NHS and its pregnant patients, but the educational leaflet provided to first-time mothers is a move toward reducing GBS infections and their potential effects.

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