The “Why Guess… when you can test?” campaign wants the ‘gold standard’ test for the group B Strep bacteria to be available to all maternity units in the UK. The current test routinely used in hospitals misses up to half those carrying group B Strep, making the result no more accurate than flipping a coin, or simply guessing.

Baby charity Group B Strep Support has launched a national campaign to ensure that the gold-standard test for a potentially deadly newborn infection is used on the NHS. In conjunction with the Unison union, it is holding a parliamentary launch of its “Why Guess?” campaign at a drop-in event at Portcullis House hosted by Teresa Pearce MP.

Why Guess? about Group B Strep

Group B Strep is the UK’s most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies and of meningitis in babies under age 3 months. Carried naturally by 20-30% of pregnant women, GBS is rarely dangerous to the mother but can have potentially devastating consequences if the bacteria is passed to her baby around labour and birth.

On average in the UK:

  • One baby a day develops GBS infection
  • One baby a week dies from GBS infection
  • One baby a fortnight who survives is left with lifelong disability.

The result of a 2014 audit by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists published earlier this year reported that over half of maternity units are testing some or all pregnant women for group B Strep carriage, but only a handful report using the ‘gold standard’ ECM test.

“The safe, simple and, above all, reliable ECM (Enriched Culture Medium) test for group B Strep carriage in late pregnancy was due to be rolled out to NHS laboratories in January 2014, but at the last minute there was a U-turn. The result of this gold-standard test – which costs the NHS less than £11 – enables decisions to be made based on fact, not guesswork. The current test available for group B Strep carriage within the NHS fails to identify 40-50% of carriers.

“This is appalling complacency – where else would we knowingly continue to use a faulty test when a much more accurate one is available? The ECM test is used in most developed countries – the US, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Poland, and many others. Why are we denying busy doctors and midwives here in the UK access to a test that has been used for decades in many other countries?”

Jane Plumb MBE, Chief Executive of Group B Strep Support

For more information about the “Why Guess when you can test?” campaign, click here.

What you should know

  • GBS is the most common cause of life-threatening infection in newborn babies, passing from mother to baby around labour and birth. Group B Strep is also the most common cause of meningitis in babies up to the age of 3 months.
  • 20-30% of women carry group B Strep, without symptoms and usually without harm.
  • Knowledge of GBS carriage status late in pregnancy enables women to make informed choices about their care during labour and delivery, based on fact not guesswork. Most group B Strep infections in newborn babies can be prevented by offering intravenous antibiotics (usually penicillin) from the start of labour to pregnant women who carry group B Strep, reducing these infections by over 80%.
  • One in 10 babies sick with group B Strep infection dies, one in 20 of the survivors suffers long-term problems and five in 10 survivors of group B Strep meningitis suffer life-long disabilities, from mild to severe learning disabilities, loss of sight, loss of hearing and lung damage.
  • A sensitive test is not yet available within the NHS – The cost to the NHS of the ‘gold standard’ ECM (enriched culture medium) test is £11 per test. Few NHS trusts offer the ECM test, despite there being a UK standard for the test since 2006 (Public Health England UK Standards for Microbiology Investigations B58, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/smi-b-58-processing-swabs-for-group-b-streptococcal-carriage). Home-testing packs, following these guidelines, are available from a number of private laboratories from around £35 – see www.gbss.org.uk/test.
  • The UK’s rate of GBS has risen since a national prevention strategy was launched in 2003. By 2015, the actual number of newborn babies with group B Strep infection had risen by 38%, and the rate had risen by 19%.
  • Mum carrying group B Strep around delivery is the primary key risk factor for GBS infection in babies.
  • A screening pilot at London North West Healthcare NHS Trust resulted in an 80% reduction in cases of early-onset group B Strep infection. In addition to reducing the number of GBS infections at the Trust, the pilot has also proved to be cost effective providing estimated savings of £250,000 per annum, by reducing the numbers of poorly babies that need care.
  • Group B Strep Support, founded in 1996, is the UK’s only independent charity dedicated to eradicating group B Strep infections in babies and supporting affected families.