Some Pregnant Women Carry Strep B Bacteria And It's Harmless, Until It's Not

'Glowing’ isn’t the most accurate description of how you feel during your pregnancy, especially in the later stages.

Not only are you usually waddling around, out of breath like you’ve just run six kilometres but have only walked five metres, you’re uncomfortable and well… a bit over it.

Just as you think it can’t get any worse, out comes one more test to be added to your exhaustive list of medical pokes, prods, jabs and scans that you have already been having regularly for the past eight and a half months.

But this particular test, a). isn’t comfortable (in fact, I would go as far as to say it is undignified) and b.) doesn’t even result in a cute ultrasound picture or piece of information about of your baby.

It is the Group B Streptococcus (GBS) test.

This screening is routinely offered in a woman’s pregnancy at the 35 to 37 week stage (so peak discomfort time). It is competed to test for these specific Strep B bacteria in the vagina which is quite common in both men and women.

Strep B is quite common but can cause complications if passed onto a baby. Image: Getty

Usually found in the gastrointestinal tract but which can also colonise in the vagina, it is so common that Obstetrician Dr Patrick Moloney said it is present in between 15-30 per cent of all women.

The bacteria is not harmful to a pregnant woman herself, but it can be to the baby if it is passed on and its implications can be quite severe.

“If GBS is present in the vagina at the time of labour, there is a chance that it will be passed to the baby," Dr Moloney told 10 daily.

Most babies who catch GBS remain well, but some babies get very sick and need nursery admission and intravenous antibiotics in the first few days of life. This is called early onset GBS sepsis.

Some of the statistics around babies who do become infected are confronting.

80 per cent of infections are early onset, most of which are observable at or immediately after birth and 18 per cent of premature babies with early onset GBS infection die. A further six per cent of babies born at full term die.

Babies who survive, particularly those who have meningitis, may have long-term problems, such as hearing (five per cent) or vision loss or learning disabilities.

Dr Patrick Maloney. Image: Supplied

Late onset of GBS infection occurs between seven and 90 days after the birth, with the baby acquiring infection at a later stage. Without treatment, about one in 200 women with GBS will have a baby that develops a severe infection.

This is why most pregnancy caregivers will send you off to your local pathology service to be screened just as I was in both my pregnancies.

I had my test completed at a local pathology collection centre, but it can also be taken by a midwife or by obstetrician. It involves swabbing the vaginal opening to collect a sample to be tested and if you are uncomfortable having the swab.

Shona Hendley. Image: Supplied

Dr Moloney said: “It is suitable for self-collection. A woman can go into cubicle at pathology service, take the swab herself from vaginal opening.”

This will then be sent off to the pathology laboratory for analysis. But alarmingly, while the majority of pregnancy caregivers do recommend the test, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists state that not all do:

“Some hospitals will test all pregnant women for GBS with a vaginal swab at around 36 weeks. Other hospitals only give antibiotics to women with specific risk factors, such as preterm labour or prolonged rupture of membranes.”

Dr Moloney believes that although it is technically not compulsory (as no tests are) doing so “does improve the safety for babies” and he recommends all of his pregnant patients have the test carried out.



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Should every baby born by caesarean section (C-section) be given a smear of microbes to the mouth, nose or skin from the mum’s vagina soon after birth?

One of the key reasons for this is because if a test does come back positive there are preventive measures that can be actioned which significantly lower the rate of the baby being infected.

“If a woman has GBS she is more likely to experience intervention in labour. We may recommend a syntocinon infusion to get the labour underway and shorten the exposure of the baby to vaginal GBS," Dr Moloney said.

"Although GBS carriage is not treated during pregnancy, at the onset of labour we use intravenous antibiotics, ideally at least four hours prior to the birth and four hourly after the first dose."

Despite the discomfort of having the swab taken when it was perhaps the last thing I wanted to be doing, I am absolutely glad that I did -- it’s an undignified test that gave me great peace of mind.

Featured image: Getty