New research published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases shows that the incidence of GBS disease in babies has increased in the UK and Ireland since a comparable study done in 2000 - 2001.
When GBS infection occurs within the first six days of life we call it early onset disease and it mainly results in sepsis – otherwise known as septicaemia or blood poisoning. GBS infection in babies older than seven days is called late onset disease and more commonly results in meningitis.
GBS is the leading cause of meningitis in newborn babies in the UK and many other countries around the world.
The research identified 517 cases of early onset GBS disease and 339 of late onset GBS disease in babies between April 2014 and April 2015.
GBS bacteria are quite common - they are carried, mostly harmlessly, by 20-40% of adults. Around one in five pregnant women carry the bacteria in the gut or vagina. In most cases it is harmless but it can sometimes cause death or serious complications in babies that come into contact with it during or after birth.
The UK’s current GBS prevention strategy involves identifying at-risk expectant mothers and offering them antibiotics during childbirth but this approach can only prevent early onset disease. Alarmingly, this research shows that the UK’s risk-based approach to early onset GBS prevention is not working because there has been no decline in early onset disease since it was introduced.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine available to prevent GBS disease. A vaccine for pregnant women would protect their unborn babies against both early and late onset GBS disease. Several GBS vaccines for pregnant women are in development, but are not yet licensed.
Once a vaccine has been licensed, decisions in the UK about whether it can be introduced routinely on the NHS hinge on whether the vaccine is considered to be value for money.
Research recently funded by Meningitis Research Foundation found that it is highly likely that a GBS vaccine would be found cost-effective, even if it costs the NHS as much as £54 a dose. Having undertaken this research early should mean that there are fewer delays in introducing a GBS vaccine routinely once one becomes licensed.