The development of a vaccine to protect against an infection commonly carried by pregnant women could help prevent nearly 150,000 still births and baby deaths worldwide, a new report has claimed.
Though more than 21 million pregnant women carry the bacteria, until recently group B streptococcus (GBS) was thought to be relatively harmless, so it’s impact had not been properly chronicled.
But a groundbreaking report published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases presented at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in Baltimore, has revealed the scale of infection and it’s effects.
The NHS explains that GBS is one of many bacteria that can be present in our bodies and is carried by about one in five pregnant women in the UK in their digestive system or vagina.
Around the time of labour and birth, many babies come into contact with GBS and are colonised by the bacteria. Most are unaffected, but a small number can become infected.
Because newborn babies’ immune systems aren’t fully developed, Strep B bacteria can quickly spread through their body, causing serious infections, such as meningitis and also life-threatening septicaemia – blood poisoning.
According to report researchers there are 410,000 cases of the disease every year and 147,000 stillbirths and infant deaths.
Women considered at risk are often given antibiotics in labour, but that does not prevent stillbirths, so now experts are calling for the introduction of a vaccine.
“Vaccines are the way to go,” said Joy Lawn, co-lead author of the papers and professor of maternal, reproductive and child health at the LSHTM. “They are on the way but it is going to be probably a five-year time horizon. The vaccine process needs to be accelerated. The World Health Organisation is already moving to make sure that when we get a vaccine it will be available for countries where the need is highest.”
Though several vaccines are in development, none are currently available, but report researchers say that a vaccine which was 80% effective and reached 90% of women, could potentially prevent 231,000 infant and maternal cases of disease. They are now calling for the development of the vaccine to be accelerated.
Commenting on the report findings Dr Keith Klugman, director of the pneumonia team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which funded the research, said: “The first few days and weeks of a baby’s life are the most vulnerable – by far. By filling in one of the great voids in public health data, this work provides crucial insight and shows the pressing unmet need for the development of an effective GBS vaccine. Immunising expectant mothers is a potentially groundbreaking approach that could dramatically reduce the number of maternal and child deaths.”
Johan Vekemans, co-author of the papers from the World Health Organisation, told The Guardian that an unacceptable number of families were affected by GBS. “It is now essential to accelerate the GBS vaccine development activities,” he said.
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