GBS awareness month: prevention by vaccination will be the best way to save lives
July is Group-B streptococcus (GBS) awareness month. Meningitis Research Foundation (MRF) wants babies to have the maximum possible protection for GBS. Cases have risen in newborn and young babies in the UK.
When GBS infection occurs within the first six days of life we call it early onset disease and it mainly results in sepsis. GBS infection in babies older than seven days is called late onset disease and more commonly results in meningitis.
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.
GBS is the leading cause of meningitis in newborns in the UK and many other countries around the world. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, between 2012-2017 there was an almost 20% rise in rates of GBS disease in babies under 3 months of age. Last year, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated the global burden of GBS just in babies under three months old at 319,000 cases in a single year. Reducing neonatal meningitis is an international priority for MRF.
A national government-funded trial into routine screening starts in September 2019 in the UK. It will provide definitive answers on whether screening pregnant women for GBS and offering antibiotics to those who carry the bug would be superior to the current risk-based policy, and this should ensure that the UK adopts the best policy taking all the evidence into account.
Routine testing might prevent cases of early onset disease occurring in very young babies, but late onset GBS could only be preventable by vaccinating pregnant women.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine available currently 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.
Research funded by MRF found that it is highly likely that a GBS vaccine would be found cost-effective, even if it costs the UK’s 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.