Raising the profile of little-known but deadly infection

July is Group B Strep Awareness Month, and Lincolnshire World reporter Rachel Armitage has shared her own experiences of this rare but potentially life-threatening illness.

Rachel's hospital notes were marked with a GBS sticker.
Rachel's hospital notes were marked with a GBS sticker.

Today (Thursday July 1) is the beginning of Group B Strep Awareness Month, an annual campaign by national charity Group B Strep Support to highlight the importance of Group B Strep awareness, education and research.

Group B Strep (also known as GBS or Strep B) is a bacterium carried by many adults, commonly in the gut or in the vagina. ‘Carriage’ is not an infection or illness, rarely causes any symptoms, and does not need to be treated. Carriage should therefore be regarded as ‘normal’.

It can cause infection in newborn babies however, when the bacteria are transmitted to the baby around labour, and is the most common cause of meningitis in babies under three months old.

GBS Awareness Month.

GBS infection can kill babies within hours of birth, and cause life-long disability in around 10 percent of survivors.

On average in the UK, at least two babies a day develop group B Strep infection and one baby a week dies, and one baby a week also survives but with a disability.

Most GBS infections in newborn babies can be prevented by testing expectant mothers and providing targeted antibiotics during labour to the women carrying GBS.

Shockingly, the UK does not routinely test for GBS, unlike the United States, Canada, Germany, France and Spain, and tragically, many families first hear about group B Strep after their baby is seriously ill with GBS meningitis, sepsis or pneumonia.

Rory Armitage.

I knew very little about this infection myself when I was diagnosed as being a carrier for Group B Strep when I was 31 weeks pregnant with my son Rory, now nearly three, after it was detected in a routine urine test.

Thankfully, the doctors assured me that the important thing is that they know about it, so both me and my baby will be protected as much as possible, and my notes were marked with Group B Strep sticker to inform the maternity team at further appointments.

To prevent passing the infection to my unborn son, I would need intravenous antibiotics during labour, four hours apart, and baby would be monitored for around 24 hours after birth, and as long as we get at least one dose of antibiotics at least two hours before birth, the risk of a baby developing a group B Strep infection can be reduced by up to 90 percent.

When my waters broke at midnight on August 6 2018, I rang Lincoln County Hospital's labour ward and explained the situation and that I was Group B Strep positive, and we were told to come in straight away.

I had my first lot of GBS antibiotics at around 3am, and then again at 7am as per protocol, and I can’t tell you how relieved I was that I’d had the proper dose in time to protect my baby.

Luckily Rory was born healthy and we were both monitored for 24 hours as planned and we were both discharged from hospital the following day, with information of what to look for in late-onset GBS (you can find all the symptoms and further information here at GBSS's website).

We count ourselves among the lucky ones that Rory was born healthy, as not all babies with GBS are so lucky, which is why I'm sharing our story to help raise awareness of this awful illness.

During Group B Strep Awareness Month, the charity's aim to get as many people as possible involved in raising awareness and funds for Group B Strep education and prevention.

GBSS chief executive Jane Plumb MBE said: “Knowing about group B Strep when you’re pregnant and in the early weeks after your baby is born can make all the difference in the world.

"Most of these infections in newborn babies can be prevented with antibiotics in labour, and most babies will make a full recovery from their group B Strep infection. Early treatment saves little lives.

"This July’s Group B Strep Awareness Month, we’re working to make new and expectant parents aware of group B Strep and what simple steps to take to help protect their baby.”

You can like and share GBSS's videos and posts on their social media channels throughout July, and share your experiences of group B Strep on your social media channels, using the hashtag #GBSAM2021

To find out about getting a test for Group B Strep, visit the dedicated section of GBSS's website.