Prior to the birth of my third baby I had never heard of Strep B. I like to read, listen to the radio, keep up with the news, am married to a doctor, was already a mother and friends with other parents. So, right there we have a clue to lack of public awareness. My son was born in 2004, so this may well have changed. I hope so.
My first babies were twins. They were born at 33 weeks and spent time in “special care” before they were resilient enough to come home. Perhaps because a hospitalised experience was necessary with them I was keen to have a home birth next time around. Everything seemed to be going well. My labour progressed slowly but surely. I even had time to bake a cake and put a bottle of fizz in the fridge. Later on the midwives were called (one for mother, one for baby, at home) and my son was born without any apparent complications, though the midwife was concerned about his heart rate late on in labour. Soon after weighing him she alerted us to changes in his colour, temperature and breathing and before long we were on our way to hospital in an ambulance.
He was diagnosed with pneumonia due to Strep B infection thought to have been contracted in labour. Like his brother and sister when new-born, he was placed in an incubator, which I found very upsetting. The standard treatment for GBS is Penicillin but, in case the infection was caused by something else, e.g. E coli or listeria, another antibiotic was also administered. These drugs were delivered intravenously, which I also found distressing as he seemed to find this process painful. This was particularly noticeable if the doctors were in a hurry and forced the drug into his system too quickly; shockingly unkind when it happened.
The treatment was successful and he seemed well, though needed to remain in hospital, with me, until the end of his 5 day course. At this point his hearing was tested and he failed. I wasn’t too concerned by this, not understanding whether the test was reliable and quite possibly just refusing to entertain bad news. It was only eleven months later when he had hearing aids fitted, having gone on to be diagnosed with a “mild to moderate” hearing loss that I did, with great reluctance, accept it.
My husband, from his medical knowledge, strongly suspects that the antibiotic used, Gentamicin, caused our son’s hearing loss. Levels of it in the patient’s blood should be checked regularly for safe use. Even then, there is a small risk of hearing problems and kidney problems. Later, having requested access to his notes my husband discovered that some of these checks were missed in our son’s case. At an audiology check-up we were offered a genetic test by the consultant to determine the kind of hearing loss our son had. My husband explained to her we felt it highly likely Gentamicin was the cause of his hearing loss. She seemed unwilling to discuss this likelihood.
Since then I know women who were offered prophylactic penicillin in labour as they are known to be Strep B carriers, in order to protect their babies. I don’t understand why the discovery of Strep B risk seems only to be open to a select few. I believe that many women carry this bacteria which comes and goes and often doesn’t cause a problem. However, when it does it can kill and we are aware our son is one of the lucky ones, in that respect.
He is now thirteen years old and beginning to avoid wearing his hearing aids as he feels self-conscious. I am less concerned about this now than I was when he was learning to speak, as his language development would have been affected. Another, more subtle, effect of hearing loss is confidence. For example, jokes are rarely funny when explained and in such situations it becomes easier to play along or withdraw. There is no way of knowing the extent to which his hearing loss has affected his personality, happiness and attainment.
Unfortunately I find it hard not to feel responsible that I wasn’t able to protect him from this disability. I felt similar when my twins were born prematurely, although rationally I don’t know how I could have prevented this. Happily there have been no life-long effects from their early birth. But for my youngest child the consequences of contracting a Strep B infection and the treatment he received will be with him for the rest of his life. What is very sad is that, unlike premature birth of twins, this could have been easily avoided had I been tested or, failing that, had he been treated more carefully.