A leading London hospital dramatically reduced the rates of a life-threatening infection in newborn babies thanks to a simple screening test.

New research published today from a pilot study at Northwick Park Hospital reports that screening pregnant women for group B Strep (GBS) reduced the rate of these potentially deadly infections in their newborn babies by 83%.

The results, published in the prestigious BMJ Open come just days after the National Screening Committee said there was “insufficient evidence” to introduce GBS screening for mums-to-be in the UK.

Yet in countries that have introduced antenatal GBS screening – recognised internationally as best practice – rates of these infections have fallen by significantly, by 70-90%.

Group B Streptococcus (GBS or Strep B) is the UK’s most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, causing sepsis, pneumonia and meningitis, and claims the life of one baby a week.

Previously Northwick Park Hospital had one of the highest rates of group B Strep infection in newborn babies in the country, almost three times the national average, despite following national guidelines.

To combat this worrying figure, Dr Gopal Rao, Consultant Microbiologist at Northwick Park Hospital, decided to set up the screening programme in his busy UK multi-ethnic community to see whether this would help reduce the rate of group B Strep infection in newborn babies.

Over 6,000 pregnant women chose to have the test. This involved taking two simple swabs (which the majority of women chose to do themselves at 35-37 weeks of pregnancy) – after being given information about GBS.

Dr Rao said:

“Our hospital’s rate of group B Strep infection was much higher than the national average, despite carefully following national guidelines. This meant we were seeing more and more babies sick with group B Strep infection. 

I looked at international evidence showing how well screening worked overseas, and wondered if it could work as well in the UK.

Our pilot study has demonstrated that not only is screening doable in a UK setting, it had an even greater effect than we had expected. We are delighted with our findings, and hope comparable results can be seen across the UK.”

In the UK, the rate of group B Strep infection in babies has risen. On average:

  • 2 babies a day develop group B Strep infection
  • 1 baby a week dies from group B Strep infection
  • 1 baby a week survives but with disability

During the study, pregnant women were offered testing for group B Strep carriage late in pregnancy using Enriched Culture Medium (ECM) tests. If group B Strep was found, they were offered intravenous antibiotics during labour. There were no reported increases in adverse side effects, such as increased antibiotic resistance or allergic reactions to the antibiotics.

During the 22-month study, only three newborn babies developed group B Strep infection and only one of those mothers had been screened. This was a fall in the rate of group B Strep infections in newborn babies of 66% overall, and 83% in babies born to screened mothers.

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Nisha Kotecha is the Founder of Good News Shared. Having worked and volunteered for charities in the UK for over 10 years, Nisha is on a mission to highlight how amazing charities are.