Babies who survive a potentially deadly disease caused by a common type of bacteria passed on from their mothers may be twice as likely to have life-changing disabilities and require special educational support than those not infected, research suggests.
Scientists in the UK and Europe found infants who develop invasive Group B Streptococcus (GBS) disease during the first days and months of their lives are at risk of having lasting neurodevelopmental impairments (NDI) – disabilities in the functioning of the brain that affect a child’s behaviour, memory or ability to learn.
The researchers said their work, published in the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, is the first to look at the long-term effects of GBS and highlights the need for follow-up care as well as vaccine development.
Professor Joy Lawn, from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and principal investigator on the study, said: “Despite 30 years of research, maternal GBS vaccines currently are not yet available – a contrast to more than 100 Covid-19 vaccines in process within one year.
“We can and must deliver more for families affected by GBS all over the world.”
GBS is a common type of bacterium found in the gut of up to 40% of the population, where it causes no problems.
Pregnant women can harmlessly carry the bacteria in their vagina. However, in some cases, it can potentially be dangerous when passed on to babies during birth.
GBS is the UK’s most common cause of severe infection in newborns, causing sepsis (infection in the bloodstream), pneumonia and meningitis.
Approximately 800 babies a year in the UK develop the infection in their first three months of life, with 50 dying from GBS disease and another 70 survivors being left with life-changing disabilities.
For the study, scientists analysed outcomes for nearly 25,000 children born in Denmark and the Netherlands, between 1997 and 2017.
Of them, 2,258 babies were diagnosed as having had GBS infection, including meningitis and sepsis, within the first three months of life.
Children were followed up for an average of 14 years in Denmark and nine years in the Netherlands.
Invasive GBS disease in early life was associated with 1.8-fold increase in risk of NDI in Denmark, and more than two-fold risk in the Netherlands, by the age of 10.
Dr Bronner Goncalves, from LSHTM and a lead author on the study, said: “This is the largest study quantifying long-term effects of GBS infection for babies who survive, with follow-up to the second decade.
“Our results suggest that continued medical follow-up is key and could lead to earlier identification of problems, and more support to families.”
At present, the researchers said, the only available GBS disease prevention strategy is to provide antibiotics to women in labour whose baby is at increased risk of developing infection, such as those in preterm labour.
The UK National Screening Committee does not recommend routine testing for GBS during pregnancy because they say in the majority of cases, babies of mothers with GBS are born safely and do not develop an infection.
But the authors argue that this is not sufficient, adding further risk-based prevention strategies are required.
Professor Merijn Bijlsma, a paediatrician at Amsterdam University and a lead author on the study, said: “Even with the best medical care, such as available for Dutch and Danish babies, survivors of GBS meningitis and also sepsis may be affected for life.
“The best way to protect these children is prevention of invasive GBS disease.
“We need better ways to identify at birth who is at risk, so prevention including with intrapartum antibiotics becomes more effective.”
Commenting on the findings, Jane Plumb MBE, chief executive of the charity Group B Strep Support, said: “This is important new research showing that many more babies who have recovered from their group B Strep infection, including GBS sepsis, have long-term health issues as a result.
“It is vital that steps are taken to stop GBS infection in babies, both through currently available test-based and risk-based prevention strategies, and, longer-term, a maternal vaccine. Both will save lives.”