Health experts have called for routine screening of pregnant women for group B streptococcus infection, noting that this will help to reduce infant mortality.
The health condition, according to the experts can cause multi-systemic damage to the baby in the womb, as well as the death of newborn, when not diagnosed and properly treated.
The experts also called for new vaccines for the infection, stressing that it is becoming increasingly imperative to vaccinate women against the condition because of its dangers to babies in the womb.
Group B streptococcus is a common bacterium that can live in the intestine, the rectum, or a woman’s vagina. It does not usually cause problems in healthy adults but causes sickness in newborns exposed to it during birth.
Recall that the World Health Organisation in a recent report called for vaccines against group B streptococcus infection, a common bacterium, in pregnant women.
Speaking with PUNCH HealthWise, a professor of fetomaternal medicine, Babagana Bako, said vaccinating women against the condition will help to curb infant mortality and eradicate long-term disabilities suffered by newborn babies.
He noted that infant mortality occurring as a result of group B streptococcus infection has been long underestimated.
Bako, who is also a consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician said group B streptococcus infection is a common infection that does not cause any harm to an adult but is very deadly to a newborn child.
The expert revealed that the infection is contracted by the mother through diverse ways. He added:
“It can be sexually transmitted, just like any other infection. Women can also get it without them knowing and most of the time it can be through poor hygiene and sometimes you can’t even find a specific cause because it can be harboured on the skin.
“Most often the women will not know that they even have the infection because even if it’s there, it is not likely to cause a serious infection for the mother.”
Explaining how this infection is transmitted to the new-born, Bako said the bacteria infection, also found in the genital tract of the mother, can in the process of delivery be passed on to the infant, especially when the woman’s water ruptures and it takes time for her to be delivered of the baby.
Bako noted that the infection can cause multi-systemic damage in the new-born baby, describing GBS as an overwhelming infection in babies. He stated further:
“When the infection occurs, it will damage so many things in the baby – the blood, the liver; it damages so many things in the baby and when infection occurs it goes straight into the blood. That is why it is called sepsis.
“It is an overwhelming infection and you know the baby has a very low immunity; so the baby cannot control the infection as the adults do. So, it can cause serious infections for the baby that can easily kill them.”
He noted that group B strep is a common infection in Nigeria that can be treated with antibiotics in pregnant women.
Bako, however, pointed out that pregnant women are not routinely checked for the infection unless there are reasons to believe that they have it – such as if a woman has a discharge or if her water breaks.
He noted that “those conditions may mean that she may be harbouring the infection.”
Bako posited that a vaccine that could protect the expectant mother against infection is essential in maternal care, as such vaccines also ensure the health and safety of the newborn.
According to the WHO, group B streptococcus infection is now a major concern in infant mortality, causing “150,000 deaths of babies each year, more than half a million preterm births and significant long-term disability.”
The global health agency in its report stated further that an estimated 15 per cent of all pregnant women worldwide carry the GBS bacterium in their vagina, usually without symptoms, noting that it can then spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby in the womb, or to newborns during labour.
The report stressed that new vaccines are urgently needed to reduce deaths associated with group B streptococcus infection and protect the lives and health of infants around the world, especially in low and middle-income countries where screening and intrapartum antibiotic administration are most challenging to implement.
In his remarks, the author of the report and medical officer, WHO’s Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals Department, Dr. Phillipp Lambach, said the new research shows that “Group B strep is a major and underappreciated threat to newborn survival and wellbeing, bringing devastating impacts for so many families globally.”
Lambach noted that the condition contributes to preterm births, as well as causing neurological impairments, such as cerebral palsy and hearing and vision loss, in affected children.