New report reveals bug is a major cause of baby deaths and disability globally
- The global burden of group B Strep is far higher than previously recognised, leading to nearly 100,000 newborn deaths, at least 46,000 stillbirths, and significant long-term disability each year. It’s also potentially linked to over half a million preterm births annually.
- Although the bug is harmless for most pregnant women who carry it, it can be dangreous when it passes to babies during pregnancy, childbirth or in the early months of life.
- New vaccines are urgently needed to reduce deaths associated with group B Strep and protect the lives and health of babies around the world.
A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) reveals the global impact of group B Strep. It calls for the development of maternal vaccines against GBS to reduce this toll, emphasising they could be highly cost-effective – with significant health benefits – in all regions of the world.
This is a hugely important report which, I sincerely hope, will be a game-changer for the urgent development of a group B Strep vaccine which will prevent so much grief and heartache, and protect our most vulnerable.Jane Plumb MBE FRCOG FRSA, Group B Strep Support Chief Executive
For the first time, this new research estimates the major potential contribution of GBS to preterm births, as well as quantifying neurological impairments – such as cerebral palsy, hearing and vision loss – that can occur following GBS infections.
This new research shows that Group B strep is a major and underappreciated threat to newborn survival and wellbeing, bringing devastating impacts for so many families globally. WHO joins partners in calling for urgent development of a maternal GBS vaccine, which would have profound benefits in countries worldwideDr Phillipp Lambach, Medical Officer from WHO’s Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals department, and report author
Several GBS vaccines are in development but none is yet available, despite having been in the pipeline for several decades.
Group B Strep infection poses a serious challenge to every family affected, and in every country. Maternal vaccination could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in the years to come, yet 30 years since this was first proposed, the world has not delivered a vaccine. Now is the time to act to protect the world’s most vulnerable citizens with a GBS vaccine.Professor Joy Lawn, Director of the Maternal Adolescent Reproductive & Child Health (MARCH) Centre at LSHTM, and a contributor to the report
An average of 15% of all pregnant women worldwide – nearly 20 million annually – carry the bug in their vagina, usually without symptoms. It can then pass from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby in the womb, during labour and in the early months after birth.
Currently, the main strategy used to prevent GBS disease in babies is to give antibiotics in labour to pregnant women who carry group B Strep. However, even in regions where this is common practice, there remain significant health risks, as this is unlikely to prevent most stillbirth associated with GBS, or GBS disease that occurs after the first week of life.
Importantly the largest burden of GBS infection is in low- and middle-income countries, where screening and antibiotics in labour are most challenging to implement, and a vaccine is, therefore, most urgently needed. The highest rates of maternal GBS carriage are found in sub-Saharan Africa (accounting for around half of the global burden), and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.
The report calls for researchers, vaccine developers and funders to accelerate the development of an effective GBS vaccine that could be given to pregnant women during routine pregnancy checkups.
It is difficult to describe the breadth or depth of the grief when your child dies, or the accompanying guilt, and how it changes you, your family, and your relationships forever. Only a GBS vaccine could have saved Ada. When a vaccine can be widely rolled out, I will weep and scream with the unfairness that it came too late for her, and for all the other babies who are needlessly suffering and dying every year that it is delayed. But I will also weep with joy that in the future, many more will live, and their families will be saved from the living hell that is the death of a child.Debbie Forwood, whose daughter Ada was stillborn after they both developed a GBS infection
Estimates suggest that if GBS vaccination reached 70% of pregnant women, then over 50,000 GBS-related deaths could be averted annually – as well as potentially 170,000 preterm births. According to the report, the net monetary benefits from a year of maternal GBS vaccination could reach as high as $17 billion (c£12.5 billion) – accruing over several years – if vaccines are affordably priced.
The report highlights important data gaps which lead to some uncertainty around the total burden of deaths, disease and long-term health issues caused by GBS. Infectious causes of stillbirths, for instance, are often under-investigated across countries, meaning the true contribution of GBS may be higher still.
This report was launched at the global conference on GBS, the ISSAD conference being held by WHO and LSHTM from Wednesday 3 November to Friday 5 November 2021.
Image credit: WHO/LSHTM