Sian Bahia describes the advantages of the GBS vaccine for babies.
A vaccine that could save dozens of newborn babies in Britain from dying every year – and many thousands across the globe – is just five years away, say British scientists.
The common bacteria Group B Streptococcus – or ‘GBS’ – kills at least 40 babies in the UK annually. A similar number survive serious infection but go on to suffer severe lifelong disability due to meningitis triggered by the bug.
But now NHS medics are making progress in the battle to create a vaccine that would protect pregnant women -and their unborn children – against it.
Professor Paul Heath, head of the Vaccine Institute at St George’s, University of London, said: ‘It’s hard to make predictions but it’s likely to be available within the next five years.’
GBS is very common and one in four pregnant women carry it. Most do so without it harming them or their babies. However, it can be passed on during childbirth and about one in 1,000 births result in active infection – where the baby falls ill. The consequences can be devastating.
Antibiotics are given in NHS hospitals to women deemed to be at ‘high risk’ of carrying the bug. However, this approach misses many women classed as ‘low risk’ who actually harbour it, while antibiotics do not protect against cases that develop after the first week of a baby’s life.
Prof Heath said: ‘It is clear that we need an effective vaccine to protect UK infants against GBS infection – an infection that results in meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia in young infants – causing over 800 cases every year.’
The idea is to vaccinate pregnant women from 28 weeks, prompting them to develop antibodies against GBS which are then passed to the unborn child, so it develops immunity in utero. The existing whooping cough vaccine works in this way. Prof Heath said research found most women would be happy to receive a GBS vaccine if told about the dangers of the bacteria, while it should also be cost-effective.
The team at St George’s, funded by the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research, is currently trying to determine what levels of antibodies are required in mother and child to provide sufficient protection against GBS. This information will be used to help vaccine development around the world.
When a jab becomes available it could have a hugely positive impact: GBS is estimated to cause 66,000 infant deaths per year around the world and another 41,000 stillbirths.
Jane Plump, chief executive of the charity Group B Strep Support, said: ‘A maternal vaccine against group B Strep infection would save money, lives and heartache. At the moment, too many families are suffering the grief that group B Strep infection causes – and a vaccine could consign most of these infections to the past. It can’t come soon enough.’