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Group B strep: harmless to adults, but dangerous for newborns

When you think of the strep bacteria, you probably think about strep throat. While this sickness is uncomfortable, you probably would not be too worried if a doctor diagnosed you with it. Bacteria like streptococcus may present little threat to adults with fully functioning immune systems, but they can present a grave threat to infants whose immune systems are not yet able to protect them. One variety of the streptococcus bacteria is especially risky for little ones.

Group B strep is not the type of streptococcus bacteria that causes strep throat. About a quarter of adult women in America carry this bacterium in their bodies. Unlike Group A strep, which causes strep throat, Group B strep presents such a little threat to adults that a mother-to-be may not even realize she is carrying this bacterium. However, if an expectant mother is carrying Group B strep, the bacteria can infect her baby during birth and cause the baby serious harm.

Because this bacterium can be so dangerous for newborn babies, it is a routine procedure for doctors to screen an expectant mother for Group B strep. If she tests positive, a simple antibiotic administered during labor may neutralize the threat to the baby. Unfortunately, some doctors fail to administer the test or provide the necessary antibiotics.

Who is at risk of carrying Group B strep?

Medical professionals should test pregnant women for Group B between the 36th and 37th week of the pregnancy. For the test, a medical professional will use a sterile swab to collect a sample from the vagina and the rectum, two places this bacterium naturally lives. Those samples will then be tested in a lab to determine if the woman is a carrier.

Women who are carriers have an increased risk of passing the bacteria on to their babies, but not every baby exposed to this bacterium becomes sick from it. Other factors that may increase a baby's risk of developing a group B strep infection, include the mother:

  • Going into labor before 37 weeks
  • Having a fever during labor
  • Developing a urinary tract infection because of Group B strep during pregnancy
  • Having already given birth to a baby with Group B strep

How do doctors prevent a baby from obtaining Group B strep?

Women who are confirmed carriers or who experience other risk factors may be treated with antibiotics through an IV during delivery. Taking antibiotics orally or using birth canal washes are not effective treatment methods. Additionally, it is not effective to treat an expectant mother for strep before labor because the bacteria may have time to repopulate before she goes into labor.

What could happen if a newborn is infected with Group B strep?

If a newborn develops a Group B strep infection, he or she may experience a variety of symptoms, such as a fever, difficulty feeding, lack of energy, irritability, jaundice, breathing problems, blood pressure instability, gastrointestinal problems and kidney problems.

Some newborns with Group B strep begin showing symptoms within hours of birth. Complications that could develop as a result of an early-onset group B strep infection include sepsis, pneumonia and meningitis, which can each lead to further problems.

Meningitis is the most common symptom of a late-onset infection. This or other symptoms may appear between a week and a few months after birth.

If the neglect of proper preventative measures harms a newborn, it may be reasonable for parents to hold their medical professionals responsible. It may be possible for families to receive compensation to help cover the related medical expenses. Appropriate legal action may also help prevent other families from experiencing similar situations in the future.

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