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Pregnant women in the South West to be routinely tested for group B Strep as part of major research study

Heidi Hollands, Senior Research Midwife at University Hospitals Plymouth, talks to a participant in the GBS3 trial

Pregnant women and people receiving their maternity care from University Hospitals Plymouth have become the first in the UK to be routinely offered a test for group B Streptococcus (GBS), as part of an important new research study running across the South West.

The study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Programme and led by experts at the University of Nottingham, seeks to evaluate whether testing pregnant women to see if they carry GBS reduces the risk of infection in newborn babies, and therefore is more effective than the current risk factor-based strategy in place in the UK.

Although University Hospitals Plymouth (UHP) is the first trust in the country to recruit patients into the study, the tests are also set to be offered to those receiving care at other participating sites in the South West: Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust and Northern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust.

The study is being supported locally by the NIHR Clinical Research Network South West Peninsula (CRN SWP).

Sherry Halawa, CRN SWP Specialty Research Lead for Reproductive Health and Childbirth, said: “It is fantastic that this test is being made available to expectant mothers across the region as part of the GBS3 trial. Congratulations are due to the team at Plymouth for being the first to recruit participants, and we must also say thank you to those people who have volunteered to take part in the trial, and will do in future.  

“At the moment, there is a lack of evidence around the best way to prevent babies becoming ill as a result of group B Streptococcus, and the potential benefits of universal screening in pregnancy. This trial is going to make a crucial contribution to that evidence, and ultimately drive improvements in care and better outcomes for pregnant women and their babies.”     

Heidi Hollands, Senior Research Midwife at UHP said: “Many women have been campaigning to have this test made routine on the NHS for years. So the fact that the women we care for will now have this opportunity is incredibly important to all of us.”

In the UK, approximately one in four pregnant women carry GBS, a common bacteria that normally causes no harm, in their vagina and rectum (back passage). If a woman carries GBS, her baby may be exposed to it during labour and birth and become colonised with the bacteria. Although most babies who are exposed to GBS remain well, there is a very small chance of a baby becoming seriously ill or even dying. In order to reduce these risks, women with GBS are offered intravenous antibiotics throughout their labour and during birth.

Midwives in the UK currently identify pregnant women who may be at risk of their baby developing a GBS infection using a checklist of risk factors. As part of this new trial, women will be tested using a swab sample, which will be taken at around three to five weeks before their expected due date. It is hoped that this routine testing will greatly improve the accuracy of identifying women with GBS and therefore decrease the risk to their babies, as well as reduce the amount of antibiotics administered unnecessarily.

Kate, who lives in Saltash and is 36 weeks pregnant, was one of the first women to be offered the test. She said: “If this test can prevent babies from developing potentially life-threatening illnesses, it is certainly worthwhile. It was very quick and easy to do – there is nothing to be anxious or frightened about. I’m really impressed that the midwives here in Plymouth are pioneering something that is going to be beneficial to all women in the UK.”

Ashton from Plymouth, who is 38 weeks pregnant, adds: “The midwives here are absolutely amazing and I feel very fortunate to have been one of the first women to benefit from this test routinely on the NHS. I know they want to help us and that’s why they’re doing this, which is brilliant. My midwife was really informative about the test and so it wasn’t daunting at all.”

The study aims to assess a total of 320,000 pregnant women throughout 80 different hospital maternity units across the UK. Each hospital will be randomised to different elements of the study. For further information about the study, please visit: