Deadly infection risk in newborns could be x10 higher than thought

Newborns are up to 10 TIMES more at risk from common bug than previously thought, study warns

  • Team claims as many as 1 in 200 babies need care for sepsis caused by the bug
  • READ MORE: Patients ‘dying from remote GP consultations’ as major study warns

Newborns are more at risk from a common bug than previously thought, scientists warned today. 

Group B strep, GBS, normally live in the vagina or rectum and are usually harmless.

However, if pregnant women pass it to their babies during birth it can lead to them suffering high-risk complications such as sepsis or meningitis. 

Only around one in 1,750 babies fall seriously ill after contracting the infection, NHS data suggests.

But a study by a team from the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust found that one in 200 newborns are admitted to neonatal units with sepsis caused by GBS.

A study has warned NHS estimates of the risk of babies catching a bacterial infection from pathogens that can be present in the vagina or rectum of their mothers during could be far lower than expected (stock image)

This is around 10 times higher than the previous estimate, they said. 

The team of scientists have now developed a test kit for GBS that they hope will be used to see if expectant mums are carrying the bacteria before giving birth.

Researchers based their findings on a reanalysis of data from their previous study, which found GBS in the placenta of about 5 per cent of women prior to labour.

The included 436 babies born full-term, with the team confirming their findings in a second group of 925 pregnancies.

Jane Plumb, chief executive of the charity Group B Strep Support, said: ‘This important study highlights the extent of the devastating impact group B Strep has on newborn babies, and how important it is to measure accurately the number of these infections.

‘This research suggests that the number of preventable infections may be ten times higher than previously thought, each one having a significant impact on babies and their families.

‘Inadequate data collected on group B Strep is why we recently urged the Government to make group B Strep a notifiable disease, ensuring cases would have to be reported.

‘Without understanding the true number of infections, we may not implement appropriate prevention strategies and are unable to measure their true effectiveness.’

Mrs Plumb, who co-founded the organisation with her husband Robert in 1996 after losing their middle child to the infection, added: ‘We need to do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in our society, and for the prevention of GBS robust data collection is central to this mission.’

Pregnant women are not routinely screened for GBS in the UK and only usually discover they are carriers if they have other complications or risk factors.

Dr Francesca Gaccioli, of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Cambridge, said the team’s findings – published in Nature Microbiology – ‘profoundly changes the risk/benefit balance of universal screening’.

The research team has developed a new polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test which looks for the presence of the bacteria.

Professor Gordon Smith, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Using this new test, we now realise that the clinically-detected cases of GBS may represent the tip of the iceberg of complications arising from this infection.

‘We hope that the ultra-sensitive test developed by our team might lead to viable point-of-care testing to inform immediate neonatal care.’

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

GBS infections in newborns usually occur within six days of birth following exposure.

However, some infections can take up to three months before symptoms emerge. 


Group B streptococcus (GBS) is a bacteria that is carried by up to 40 per cent of adults, usually in the gut, and 25 per cent of women in their vaginas, without typically causing symptoms.

One in every 2,000 babies is diagnosed with the infection, according to figures from the NHS. It kills in around 10 per cent of cases.

The rate of GBS infection in newborn babies in the UK is 2.5x that of the US. 

GBS infections usually affect newborns, occasionally adults and very rarely babies during pregnancy and before labour.

Infants can suffer early-onset GBS infections, which are much more common and occur when the infant is up to six days old, if they come into contact with the bacteria in the womb or during birth.

This causes them to develop rapid breathing problems and blood poisoning.

Late-onset GBS infections, which occur between seven days and up to three months, usually cause sepsis and meningitis.

Babies’ symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Bluish-coloured skin
  • Seizures
  • Limpness or stiffness
  • Vomiting
  • Poor feeding 
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fussing 

Adults may experience infections of the:

  • Skin and soft tissues
  • Bones and joints
  • Lungs
  • Urinary tract 

GBS infections are linked to stillbirths, premature deliveries and maternal infections. 

The treatment for sufferers of any age is IV antibiotics.

Source: Group B Strep Support 

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