Screening pregnant women for a deadly infection – which claimed the life of at least one baby at the centre of an investigation ordered by Jeremy Hunt – can dramatically cut the risk to newborns, research suggests.
A study from London North West Healthcare NHS Trust found an 83% drop in the number of babies developing the bacterial infection Group B Strep (GBS), which is the most common cause of severe infection in newborn babies.
The NHS does not currently recommend screening for GBS. Women living in other countries – including the US, Canada, France, Germany and Slovenia – are routinely offered a test.
London North West Healthcare NHS Trust said it carried out the pilot study because too many babies at the trust were developing GBS, despite it following NHS recommendations on managing risk.
GBS caused the death of one-day-old Pippa Griffiths last year while under the care of Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust.
A coroner ruled her death could have been prevented if GBS had been spotted earlier.
Health Secretary Mr Hunt has ordered an investigation into a t least seven avoidable baby deaths that occurred within two years at the trust.
A post-mortem showed that GBS was also a factor in the death Jack Burn, who died at the trust in 2015.
GBS is the most common cause of meningitis in babies under three months and can also cause septicaemia and pneumonia.
Around one in five pregnant women in the UK carries GBS in their digestive system or their vagina and some babies become infected during birth.
Symptoms of GBS in babies include being floppy and unresponsive, not feeding well, grunting, having a high or low temperature, and fast or slow breathing or heart rate.
In the new study, published in the journal BMJ Open, more than 6,000 pregnant women received a screening test for GBS in the form of vaginal swabs.
Women who tested positive for GBS were offered antibiotics in labour to reduce the chance of passing on the infection to their baby.
Over the 22-month study, three babies developed GBS, with one baby born to a woman who was screened.
Analysis suggested a drop in the rate of GBS infections of 83% in babies born to screened mothers.
Dr Gopal Rao, consultant microbiologist at Northwick Park Hospital, who led the study, said: “Our hospital’s rate of Group B Strep infection was much higher than the national average, despite carefully following national guidelines.
“I looked at international evidence showing how well screening worked overseas, and wondered if it could work as well in the UK.
“Our pilot study has demonstrated that not only is screening doable in a UK setting, it had an even greater effect than we had expected.
“We are delighted with our findings, and hope comparable results can be seen across the UK.”
Last month, the UK National Screening Committee rejected GBS screening in pregnancy saying there was “insufficient evidence” of its benefit.
But Health Minister Philip Dunne has written to the charity Group B Strep Support saying there is a lack of evidence and he has asked the National Institute for Health Research to commission a clinical trial on the issue.
In March, Public Health England told BBC Radio 5 live Investigates that the number of babies being made ill by GBS has increased by 12% between 2011 and 2015.
According to the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit, 518 newborn babies in the UK and Ireland were made ill as a result of the bacteria, 27 died and dozens more were left with disabilities in the year to April 2015.
J ane Plumb, chief executive of Group B Strep Support, said: “These findings raise questions about the validity of the UK National Screening Committee’s recommendations last month against introducing routine screening of pregnant women for Group B Strep.
“These results were not included in the review, and the UK NSC should re-examine their recommendation in light of this new evidence.”
Dr Anne Mackie, director of programmes for the UK National Screening Committee, said: “At the moment there is no test that can distinguish between women whose babies would be affected by GBS at birth and those who would not.
“This means that screening for GBS in pregnancy would lead to many thousands of women receiving antibiotics in labour when there is no benefit for them or their babies and the harms this may cause are unknown.”