Group B streptococcal meningitis

Group B streptococcal meningitis (GBS) disease (meningitis, septicaemia and pneumonia) is the main cause of meningitis in babies

Types and causes - GBS LB

How is GBS disease caused?

GBS disease is caused by the Streptococcus agalactiae bacteria, which usually live harmlessly in the intestinal tract or vagina. 

  • It is estimated that 10 – 30% of pregnant women carry GBS bacteria, but the majority of babies born to these mothers will not become ill with GBS disease
  • Most people build up natural immunity following carriage and very few adults develop GBS disease
  • The majority of GBS infection occurs in newborn babies as their immune systems have not had time to develop, allowing the bacteria to spread through the blood and cause serious illness such as meningitis, septicaemia or pneumonia

GBS disease in newborns

The risk of GBS disease in babies is higher if:

  • The mother had a previous baby with GBS 
  • Swabs and urine samples of the mother are positive for GBS
  • The mother has a high temperature during labour
  • The baby is part of a multiple birth 
  • The baby is born prematurely
  • The time between the waters breaking and the delivery of the baby is prolonged

Early and late onset disease

About 60 – 70% of GBS disease is early onset. Early onset disease, which is usually septicaemia, occurs less than seven days after birth and is most likely due to infection being passed on from the mother before or during birth.

Late onset disease, which is usually meningitis, develops between seven and 28 days after birth and is probably transmitted when babies come into contact with hands contaminated with GBS bacteria.

What are the symptoms of GBS disease?

  • Fever (can also have cold hands and feet)
  • Reluctance to feed
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • Irritability/dislike being handled
  • Floppy/difficult to wake/unresponsive
  • Difficulties breathing or grunting
  • Faster or slower than normal breathing rate
  • Pale/blotchy skin
  • Red/purple spots/rash that do not fade under pressure
  • High pitched cry/moaning/whimpering
  • Bulging fontanelle (soft spot)
  • Convulsions/seizures
  • Arched back
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Dry nappies

The signs and symptoms of meningitis or septicaemia are often non-specific at first and can be difficult to recognise in very young babies.

  • Trust your instincts as a parent/carer
  • Seek urgent medical attention if you suspect your child is ill

Check the signs and symptoms.

How is GBS disease treated?

Babies with suspected GBS disease need rapid admission to hospital. Whilst there, various tests will be carried out to establish the cause of meningitis or septicaemia, and treatment is started accordingly.

  • Urgent treatment with antibiotics is vital
  • If a baby is seriously ill, specialist care in an intensive care unit will be required. Here the doctors and nurses can closely monitor the baby’s condition, respond to emergencies and provide immediate support when it is needed
  • Appropriate hospital care and treatment are essential if the baby is to make a good recovery

Can GBS disease be prevented?

Unfortunately, there is currently no vaccine to protect against GBS disease.

  • In the UK, there is no national screening programme to routinely check all pregnant women to see if they are carrying GBS bacteria
  • However, a risk-based strategy is used and antibiotics can be given to women at increased risk of GBS disease during labour and also to babies immediately after birth
  • It’s possible to be tested for GBS in late pregnancy. Sensitive tests designed to detect carriage are available, but rarely within the NHS. Ask you GP or midwife for details of the ECM (or Enriched Culture Medium) test which is recognised as the ‘gold standard’ for detecting GBS carriage

Been affected by GBS disease?

Don’t face meningitis alone. Call our Meningitis Helpline on 0808 80 10 388 to speak to our experienced staff. You can access our free support or ask us any questions. Whatever  your experience, whenever it was, please get in touch. Our support is for life.

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