We’re delighted that a major clinical trial has been funded by the National Institute for Health Research which is looking at whether we can improve the prevention of early-onset group B Strep infections in babies.

The trial will compare the clinical and cost-effectiveness of the UK’s current approach (identifying pregnant women with ‘risk factors’ for their baby developing the infection) with testing women for group B Strep carriage, either at 35-37 weeks of pregnancy or in labour.

The £2.8m trial will involve 80 hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland and the results will inform future policy in the UK.

Health Minister Nicola Blackwood

“I am delighted the NIHR is funding this large-scale clinical trial to allow us to better understand how we can prevent the leading cause of serious infection in new-born babies.”

Nicola Blackwood, Health Minister

The group B Strep bacteria are present in approximately one in four to one in five pregnant women, usually causing no harm to the carrier, but may be passed unknowingly from a mother to her baby around birth. In the vast majority of cases, babies will be unaffected, but one in 1750 newborn babies will develop a group B Strep infection. One in 19 of these babies will die and one in 14 survivors will be left with long-term disability. It can be especially dangerous to babies born preterm.

Group B Strep infections in newborn babies can usually be prevented by giving antibiotics (usually penicillin) through a vein to women during labour, which reduces the risk by up to 90 per cent.

Since 2000, there has been a rise of almost a third (31 per cent) in the rate of group B Strep infections in babies under three months of age, despite ‘risk-based’ prevention guidelines being introduced in 2003. Research has shown that the current approach is not very accurate. 65 per cent of UK newborn babies who develop group B Strep infections have mothers who had no risk factors and 70 per cent of women who do have risk factors do not actually carry the bacteria and are therefore unnecessarily given antibiotics.

Jane Plumb

“The UK’s current policy on group B Strep prevention is clearly not working. The number of babies suffering group B Strep infections has risen despite the introduction of the risk-based prevention strategy in 2003.

“After routine testing was introduced in the United States, the rate dropped by over 80 per cent and their rate of early-onset GBS infections (those in the first six days of life) is now less than half that of the UK. If the rate was reduced in the UK in the same way, we could prevent group B Strep infections in approximately 350 babies every year, saving 15 babies’ lives and protecting another 15 from life-changing disability.  The results of this important trial will drive improvements in UK policy and lead to fewer babies and their families suffering the trauma that group B Strep infection can bring,”

Jane Plumb MBE, Group B Strep Support

The trial will look at the effectiveness of two different tests – a test at 35 to 37 weeks of pregnancy where the samples will be sent to a local; laboratory, compared with a ‘bedside test’ at the start of labour.  It is known that some women who test positive for group B Strep in pregnancy will not still be carrying the bacteria by the time they give birth.

The work is being led by Dr Kate Walker, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, and Professor Jane Daniels, Professor of Clinical Trials at the University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine, and includes researchers from the Universities of Nottingham, Warwick, Lancaster and City of London, and the charities, National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and Group B Strep Support.

Dr Kate Walker

“At the moment, we’re in a situation where we’re missing lots of babies whose mums don’t have risk factors but do carry the bacteria and giving antibiotics to women who don’t carry the bacteria.”

Dr Kate Walker, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics, University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine

The NIHR Nottingham GBS-3 Trial is the first worldwide to compare two types of testing versus a risk-factor approach and as such could lead to improvements in pregnancy care internationally.

Dr Jane Daniels

“We want to answer the question for the NHS — should you test pregnant women for group B Strep or not, and if you’re going to test, is it better to do a culture test at 35 to 37 weeks pregnancy or a bedside test? Hopefully, the trial will answer these questions. We believe that, if testing is proved effective, this would mean that the right women get the right antibiotics.”

Dr Jane Daniels, Professor of Clinical Trials , University of Nottingham’s School of Medicine

Bethany Foss had not heard of group B Strep when she was admitted to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to give birth. Bethany believes her daughter’s future would have been very different had she been tested for group B Strep.

Bethany’s daughter, Daisey-May Moore, was born on 30 October 2018 at 38 weeks, weighing 5lb 6oz. It soon became clear that she was seriously ill.

Bethany said: “Daisey-May seemed absolutely fine at first and was with me on the ward, but after 24 hours I noticed that she was grunting when she breathed. Soon after, I was told she had group B Strep sepsis and meningitis and to prepare for the worst. It was the worst time of our lives. We were in total shock and disbelief as to how our baby could have been born so normal and perfect, then in the space of 24 hours be so near to death. 

“We ended up being moved to a different hospital, which was better equipped, but that was hard for us as we were then even further away from our other two children (Noah, 3, and Leo, 2).  Every day felt like a miracle and eventually, they stabilised Daisey-May enough to take her off her ventilator and to everyone’s amazement she started breathing.

“We know from an MRI scan that Daisey-May’s brain has been very badly damaged. We don’t know yet how she will be affected in the future and what she will and won’t be able to do. She also has epilepsy and is on three different medications to control her seizures,” Bethany continued.

Daisey-May was in the hospital for three weeks altogether, coming home on 25 November 2018, where she is now being looked after by her parents with the help of specialist care.

 “We’re grateful for every day with Daisey-May, and everything she does is amazing, but we’d not heard of group B Strep until Daisey-May’s birth, despite her being our third child. I was never offered information or a test for group B Strep when I was pregnant, whereas this would have been done automatically in most developed countries. 

“The whole experience has been highly traumatic. Nobody should have to have discussions about their new baby’s life when the infection they’re suffering from could so easily have been prevented,” continued Bethany.

Bethany is supported by the Group B Strep Support charity (www.gbss.org.uk), which is working to eradicate the infection in babies.

Click here to read more about the trial