Expectant parents around the world should have the opportunity to enjoy the process of pregnancy and planning a life full of memories with their coming child. However, a growing health issue threatens to take away the hopes of a joyous childhood for both the parent and the newborn. Group B Strep (GBS), a form of bacterial meningitis, affects two newborn children each day in the UK, and on average, one child per week dies from the infection. GBS represents the most common serious health condition among new babies, and without early detection and steps for prevention, the infection could result in life-altering or fatal consequences.
To help ensure parents understand the risks involved with the development of GBS in newborns and young children, July is recognised as GBS awareness month. Several advocacy groups that focus their efforts on bringing to light the serious epidemic of Group B Strep encourage parents to learn more about the different forms of meningitis, how to spot signs and symptoms of GBS, and what can be done to prevent the condition before a child is born.
Types of Meningitis
Meningitis is defined as an inflammation of the membranes that normally work to protect the spinal cord and brain, and there are several forms of meningitis that exist. Parents should educate themselves on the various types of meningitis so that the symptoms of more serious forms of the medical condition can be recognised and treated promptly. The broad categories of meningitis include viral and bacterial, with Group B Strep falling into the latter.
Viral meningitis is more common than its bacterial counterpart, and while it is typically not life-threatening, untreated symptoms can lead to a life of discomfort and ongoing medical treatment. A group of viruses known as enteroviruses are often the cause of viral meningitis, but herpes simplex virus, HIV, mumps, and West Nile viruss may also lead to viral meningitis. Both newborns and young children are the most susceptible to viral meningitis due to a not-yet-developed immune system.
While less common than viral meningitis, bacterial meningitis has the potential to be more detrimental to a newborn’s health. Caused by bacteria that enter the bloodstream, bacterial meningitis occurs when the brain and spinal cord are affected by that bacteria. In some cases, a sinus infection or an ear infection is the underlying cause. There are several different forms of bacterial meningitis, including Group B Strep. In the UK alone, between 10 and 30% of pregnant women carry the GBS bacteria in their intestinal tract or the vagina. If steps are not taken to reduce the chance of passing along the bacteria to a newborn before birth, GBS can cause severe medical conditions that could alter the quality of life for the child and the parents.
What are the Symptoms of GBS?
Group B Strep has a wide range of signs and symptoms of which parents should be keenly aware. The most common issues that should prompt an immediate visit to the doctor’s office include:
- A fever that is persistent
- Irritability when being handled
- Difficulties breathing or grunting
- A faster or slower breathing rate
- Blotchy or pale skin
- Lacking appetite
Parents should also be aware of less common signs of GBS, such as a difficult to wake a newborn or ongoing unresponsiveness, a red or purple rash that does not fade under pressure, or an arched back. If a newborn is displaying any single symptom or a combination of GBS warning signs, parents should act quickly to get the child tested for the condition so that appropriate treatment can be provided promptly.
How to Prevent GBS
Nearly all patient advocacy groups feel strongly that the only method to prevent the harmful effects of Group B Strep in newborns is testing during a woman’s pregnancy. However, as a solicitor from a medical negligence specialist firm explains, pregnant women are not routinely offered testing for GBS as part of their maternity care within the UK. Several developed countries offer testing as standard procedure, but instead of having this done through the NHS, the performance of the Group B Strep carriage test is made available through private organisations for a fee. Most parents are not aware that the test exists, or that antibiotics can be given intravenously as soon as labour begins to help reduce the possibility of transferring the infection to a newborn.
While there are vaccines available for other forms of meningitis, Group B Strep is not part of the vaccine roster for newborns or young children at this time. Millions are at risk of developing the infection and the life-altering conditions that come with it when testing is not performed as a regular part of maternal care for expectant mothers in the UK. Taking part in GBS awareness month by learning more about the various forms of meningitis, the signs and symptoms, and the available steps for prevention helps shed light on this common medical issue.