MP and families make Strep B screening call for mothers

William Bell-Caisley
Image caption Ruth Caisley's son William is 17 now but has been left with disabilities caused by Strep B

It's a bacteria that lives harmlessly in many of us, but for newborn babies it can be lethal.

Group B Streptococcus infection kills around 40 babies every year and leaves a further 25 with serious disabilities.

Ruth Caisley, from Haltwhistle, Northumberland, is one mother who still lives with its devastating results.

Her son William is now 17, but the Strep B infection left him with cerebral palsy and other learning disabilities. He is unlikely to ever live independently.

It was only years after William's birth that Ruth Caisley discovered that a simple treatment of antibiotics during her pregnancy could have cleared the infection and prevented her passing it on to her son.

She is now one of a number of parents campaigning for a screening programme for pregnant women.

She said: "When I look at the children who William started school with, they're now building independent lives. William will never get that chance.

"He should be going to college, and having girlfriends, but for the want of a few antibiotics that'll never happen.

"I love him to bits but if I could go back in time and change that tomorrow I would."

Screening programme

Vikki and Peter Craig, from Rowlands Gill, Gateshead, also believe mothers should be screened.

Their daughter Alice Ellen is approaching her 1st birthday, but last March she also became infected by Strep B soon after birth.

They endured days of agony while the premature baby was treated with antibiotics.

Thankfully, Alice has suffered no long term ill effects, but the couple were shocked when they discovered just how serious the infection could have been.

Vikki Craig said: "Because I had a fibroid, I was in hospital being scanned every four weeks. It was just ludicrous to think that I was there that regularly and yet I could have had this blood test that could have picked up this infection."

Peter Craig said: "The cost of the test and antibiotics do seem like a very small price to pay for something that has an opportunity to prevent a horrible situation."

Outweigh the benefits

Image caption Baby Alice Ellen Craig fell ill with a Strep B infection moments after she was born

The Department of Health though does not believe a screening programme would be necessary or effective.

It's advised by the UK National Screening Committee, which looks at what conditions could be monitored.

During a review in November 2012, it looked at the evidence on whether screening would be effective and concluded the harm involved would outweigh the benefits.

The panel said it would lead to many mothers having antibiotics unnecessarily. That could cause dangerous allergic reactions and in some cases the drugs could also pose health risks to the babies.

It also says the risks of Strep B are relatively low given that there are 700,000 births every year. But the Department of Health says it is looking at other ways to tackle the infection and protect newborn babies.

But some are not convinced that decision is right.

The Easington Labour MP Grahame Morris sits on the commons health select committee and has tabled a motion calling for a rethink.

He says the evidence for routine Strep B screening is compelling.

He said: "The evidence suggests it's on the increase and those countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany and Spain that have introduced screening on a routine basis have seen a dramatic reduction in infections in the newborn.

"I believe in early interventions in life, and this could prevent years of expense and agony with a simple, cheap measure."

Commons motion

So far more than 35 other MPs have backed the commons motion. A petition has also been started by the Group B Strep Support group, which includes dozens of the families affected by the infection.

The Department of Health panel says it will look again at the case for screening in two or three years' time.

It doesn't believe the problem of Strep B is more serous in the UK than in countries that do screen.

But families living with the effects of the infection remain convinced that a simple blood test for pregnant women at around 35 weeks would save many more lives and prevent others enduring pain and loss.

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