Group B streptococcus (GBS), which can be transmitted in the womb, is responsible for about 150,000 infant deaths each year, over half a million preterm births and significant long-term disability.
Report of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) updated estimates for 2017, showing that the global burden of GBS is much higher than previously thought.
“This new study shows that group B streptococcus is a serious and underestimated threat to the survival and well-being of newborns, with devastating consequences for so many families around the world,” said Dr. Philip Lambach, Medical Officer, Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, WHO.
The report quantifies for the first time the main contribution of GBS to preterm labor and neurological disorders such as cerebral palsy, hearing and vision loss that can result from infection.
Loss of mother
About 15 percent of all pregnant women worldwide, almost 20 million annually, carry GBS bacteria into the vagina, usually without symptoms. It can then be passed on to an unborn baby in the womb or to newborns during childbirth.
Currently, the main way to prevent GBS disease in newborns is to provide antibiotic prophylaxis to women during childbirth if the bacteria is detected during pregnancy.
However, significant health risks persist even in regions with high prevention coverage, as this intervention is unlikely to prevent most GBS-related stillbirths, premature births or GBS that occur later after birth.
“It’s hard to describe the breadth or depth of grief when your child dies, or the guilt that comes with it, and how it changes you, your family, and your relationship forever,” said Debbie Forwood, whose daughter Ada was born dead after she began GBS infection.
Develop vaccines now
The burden of GBS is greatest in low- and middle-income countries, where screening and treatment are most challenging. The highest rates of maternal GBS are found in sub-Saharan Africa and East and Southeast Asia.
“It’s time to act,” said Joy Lone, an LSHTM professor who helped write the report. Several candidate GBS vaccines are currently in development, but none are available yet, although they have been in development for several decades.
“Group B Streptococcus infection is a serious problem for every affected family and in every country,” said Ms. Lone, director of the University’s Center for Reproductive Health for Mothers, Adolescents and Children (MARCH).
“Vaccinating a mother could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in the coming years, but 30 years after it was first proposed, the world has not delivered the vaccine.”
Joy and sadness
The report calls for accelerated development of an effective GBS vaccine that can be administered to expectant mothers during routine pregnancy screenings.
Partners estimate that more than 50,000 GBS-related deaths and more than 170,000 preterm births could have been avoided if more than 70 percent of pregnant women had been vaccinated.
They added that such protection can also be very cost effective. The net benefit from vaccinations to mothers in a year could reach $ 17 billion in a few years, provided the dose is affordable. For Miss Forwood, that would be a bittersweet experience.
“Only the GBS vaccine could save Ada. When the vaccine is widely distributed, I will cry and scream at the injustice that it was too late for her and for all the other babies who needlessly suffer and die every year it is delayed, ”she said.
“But I will also cry with joy that in the future many more will live and their families will be saved from the vanity of hell, which is the death of a child.”