Video: An £11 test could save babies’ lives - why is it not offered to every expectant mother?
PUBLISHED: 09:30 22 August 2015 | UPDATED: 11:05 24 August 2015
Smiling happily with his family at their north Essex home, George Crammond seems like any other healthy toddler.
He walks, talks and plays with his big sister Lily, seemingly without a care in the world.
It is a far cry from his traumatic start to life, when at just a few days old he stopped breathing and was rushed to hospital, spending the next three weeks in intensive care.
George was one of hundreds of babies born in the UK each year infected with group B Streptococcal (GBS) – a usually harmless bacteria carried by around a fifth of pregnant women but which can become life threatening if exposed to infants around the time of labour.
Thankfully, two years on, George appears to have made a full recovery. But with dozens of infected babies dying each year, and more suffering long-term mental and physical disabilities, George’s parents are backing a simple solution to stem the problem.
Tests to detect and then prevent GBS in pregnant women are offered routinely in many other countries where infection rates have dropped – but not the UK. Zak and Mary-Jane Crammond told their story to raise awareness of the Group B Strep Support group and its calls for Government to introduce the routine testing.
Today, they were backed by Suffolk MP Dan Poulter, a former junior health minister.
But the Government says its current approach, to test those deemed to be at risk, is appropriate to ensure the safety of babies.
Mr Crammond, a 32-year-old IT consultant, said: “It seems ridiculous that all this could be prevented with an £11 test and yet the Government won’t introduce routine screening.”
If GBS reaches a baby’s bloodstream or lungs it can cause septicaemia or pneumonia, either of which can be fatal.
For George, the infection resulted in meningitis, a potentially deadly disease that can also cause lifelong disability, including blindness, deafness and learning impairments.
He was born at Braintree Community Hospital on April 5, 2013, weighing an apparently healthy 8lbs 12oz. Back at their home in the town, however, George seemed distressed; screaming when touched and unable to sleep.
Twice his parents took him back to hospital, but each time they say they were told nothing was wrong.
On the third night, Mr Crammond was changing George’s nappy when his breathing stopped.
“As soon as I realised there was this heart-pounding moment of shock and panic,” he said.
“That first night was awful, watching 15 to 20 people gathered around trying to resuscitate him and working out what was wrong, while we had no idea what was going on.”
George suffered a “mini-seizure” in the ambulance and reportedly “died” five times while undergoing emergency treatment at Broomfield Hospital’s A&E department. It was not until the following morning his parents learned their newborn son had been infected with GBS, a disease they had never heard of.
For two days it was uncertain whether George would survive. When he did pull through, his family’s ordeal was far from over. Scans revealed that his brain had been damaged and surgery may be needed.
Fortunately, George started to recover without surgery, though he remained in intensive care for 21 days and made regular outpatient visits over the following 12 months.
Today, aged two, he shows no apparent ill-effect from the infection, though he will not be fully in the clear for another eight years.
It was a similar story for Colchester mother-of-two Su Newton, when she gave birth to her daughter Emily at Colchester General Hospital in 2010.
Emily, who is now a happy, healthy five-year-old at Queen Boudica Primary School, Colchester, was diagnosed with septicaemia after the GBS infected her blood stream.
Mrs Newton said she was grateful for the treatment from the NHS, which eventually saved her daughter’s life, but angry that she had not been told about the dangers of GBS and the tests available.
The “gold standard” enriched culture medium (ECM) tests are intended to be available for healthcare professionals to use on high-risk mothers, though the support group claims this test is not in widespread use. If a test proves positive it means the mother can be given antibiotics during labour, reducing the chance of infection passing to the baby.
Mr Crammond added: “If you compare the UK against other first- world countries, I believe nearly all of them test routinely for GBS.
“They seem to understand that GBS is not just causing deaths in babies, it’s also leading to the development of meningitis, cerebral palsy, and other lifelong illnesses.”
‘Very low risk’
Anne Mackie, director of programmes for the UK National Screening Committee (NSC), said the current stance was taken following a review in collaboration with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the Royal College of Midwives and NHS England.
“The most recent review of screening concluded that the probability of a baby being affected by Early-Onset Group B Streptococcus (EOGBS) identified by antenatal testing with the ECM would be very low,” Dr Mackie added. “However, the number of women that would be offered antibiotics as a result of having a positive test result would be very high. This could expose the mother and baby to unnecessary antibiotic use.
“We want to reassure women that if, during pregnancy, or following the birth of their baby, there is any risk of an infection, appropriate treatment would be offered to ensure their and their baby’s safety.”
Dan Poulter MP
Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP Dan Poulter, who has also trained in obstetrics and gynaecological medicine, said the tests had proven effective in helping to prevent GBS infections, which could “destroy young lives” and have a “huge effect on whole families”.
“Any death of a baby, particularly when it could have been prevented, can have devastating effects that often stay with families for the rest of their lives,” he added. “Anything we can do to reduce the impact, the better.”
Despite this, health professionals are not currently recommended to offer routine testing to pregnant women, according to policy agreed at the UK National Screening Committee’s (NSC) latest review.
Dr Poulter said the evidence for routine screening was “not compelling enough” at the time, highlighting examples of “false positive results”, where woman are positive at the time of testing, but not at birth, resulting in antibiotics being given unnecessarily, giving rise to resistance.
“In the meantime, though, I think the evidence is beginning to tip more in favour of the need for routine screening,” he added. “It will be considered by the NSC at its next review.”
Calls for tests to be routine
The Group B Support Group estimates at least 400 babies in the UK are infected with GBS every year, which it says is the most common cause of life-threatening infections in newborns. Around a tenth of infected babies die, while half of those infected with GBS meningitis suffer long-term mental and physical problems.
The charity claims the tests remain unavailable to most NHS health professionals, and has launched its new campaign “Why guess...when you can test?”
A petition launched on Change.org has also amassed nearly 200,000 signatures calling for every pregnant woman to be offered more information about GBS, as well as access to the ECM test and antibiotics during labour if GBS is detected.
To find out more about the charity’s campaign visit w
Are you concerned?
Pregnant women who are concerned about whether GBS could infect their baby during labour are advised to visit the GBS website to find out where they can get the “gold standard” test.
The test will normally be offered to mothers whose babies are deemed at high risk, but some hospitals offer it upon request.
It is available privately from around £35 for a home-testing pack.
If you are found to be carrying GBS during pregnancy you should be offered intravenous antibiotics from the start of labour and at intervals until your baby is born, which minimises the chances of infection.