Group B Strep – screening babies saves lives

Imagine you are a carrier of something that could be deadly. As a carrier you could passively, inadvertently, through absolutely no fault of your own bring about harm, even mortal harm, to your newborn child? What if the NHS, though it had the opportunity to find out, did not trouble to screen you for this thing you carry and therefore offer you the anti-biotics in childbirth which would keep your baby safe?

Sounds awful doesn’t it? But the NHS fails to screen pregnant women and provide them with the information that they might carry Group B Streptococcus. As a result women pass on that infection to 700 babies a year who become very dangerously ill with Group B Strep related meningitis and or sepsis or pneumonia.

Incidence is on the up, with on average a baby dying of Group B Strep infection every week. Studies show that very close to half of children who survive are left with some kind of educational impairment.

As a campaigner I feel a tremendous sense of ground hog day style failure about Group B Strep. Fourteen years ago I went to a meeting chaired by David Cameron with other parents who had had GBS babies. I was one of the lucky ones as my baby survived her infection. The Labour junior minister who addressed us was unbelievably callous telling the bereaved parents they were too close to the issue to weigh up the pros and cons of screening for GBS. More recently bereaved parents also got short shrift for their petition on screening from a junior Tory minister who did not even express condolences.

It seems unbelievable that infant mortality should have to be a campaigning issue in a rich, western country but when we think of so many preventable baby deaths surely it must become one.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East

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8 Comments

  • Sue Sutherland 31st Mar '19 - 5:32pm

    I really don’t understand why a simple test that could save babies’ lives through a course of antibiotics is still not being delivered. These are lives that could be saved so easily.

  • Ruth Bright 31st Mar '19 - 7:33pm

    Rationing in the NHS is not a pretty business Sue and in this instance it is exposed quite clearly. Successive governments have weighed up the costs of screening and deem that a screening programme would not be cost effective. 700,000 babies are born each year so one baby death a week is not considered a big enough deal to trigger the required spend.

  • Thanks Ruth for the figure. Currently, whilst the screening test kit is free, getting the sample processed/analyzed isn’t. It seems a typical price for this is £35.
    Hence providing this as standard across the NHS would seem to require an annual commitment of a little under £25m.

  • @Ruth – I assume that one of the problems is also the lack of data – due in part to not having a screening programme… so we have no information that could improve targetting and thus reduce the overall service delivery costs…

    Thanks for politely drawing attention to my treatment cost omission, naturally both of us omitted NHS overheads, as the £35 fee is the commercial price the lab charges for processing the sample. So this is probably more like a £100m pa spending commitment from central government. However, what I suspect is also not known is the current cost to the NHS of treating 700 babies a year, which should offset this headline figure.

    I can only say, circa 16 years ago as prospective parents we were in total ignorance of GBS and can now give thanks for our good fortune. So thanks to both yourself for writing the piece and Caron for putting it up.

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