SWITZERLAND – There is an urgent need for a vaccine to prevent a bacterium that is a major cause of pre-term births, disability and baby deaths worldwide, experts have said.

A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) reveals the global impact of Group B streptococcus (GBS).

It is a common bacterium that can be transmitted in the womb, during birth or in the early weeks of life.

GBS leads to around 150,000 deaths of babies each year, more than half a million pre-term births and significant long-term disability, researchers have found.

According to the Group B Strep Support (GBSS) charity, in the UK two babies a day develop GBS, one baby a week dies from the infection, and one baby a week survives with disability.

WHO joins partners in calling for urgent development of a maternal GBS vaccine, which would have profound benefits in countries worldwide.

The new report calls for the urgent development of maternal vaccines against GBS to reduce this toll. Experts say vaccines could be highly cost-effective and have significant health benefits across the world.

Dr Phillipp Lambach, medical officer from the WHO’s Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals department, and report author, said, “This new research shows that Group B strep is a major and underappreciated threat to newborn survival and wellbeing, bringing devastating impacts for so many families globally.

“WHO joins partners in calling for urgent development of a maternal GBS vaccine, which would have profound benefits in countries worldwide.”

While several GBS vaccine candidates have been in the pipeline for a number of decades, none are yet available.

An average of 15% of all pregnant women worldwide – nearly 20 million annually – carry the GBS bacterium in their vagina, usually without symptoms.

This can then spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby in the womb, or to newborns during labor.

Currently women are given antibiotics during labor as a means of preventing GBS disease in newborns, if the bacterium is detected during pregnancy.

However, the researchers suggest that even in regions with high preventative coverage, there remain significant health risks.

According to the report, the largest burden of GBS is in low and middle-income countries.

The highest rates of maternal GBS are found in sub-Saharan Africa (accounting for around half of the global burden), and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.

The report calls for researchers, vaccine developers and funders to accelerate development of an effective GBS vaccine that could be administered during routine pregnancy check-ups.

Estimates suggest that if GBS vaccination reached more than 70% of pregnant women, then over 50,000 GBS-related deaths could be averted annually – as well as more than 170,000 pre-term births.

The report was launched at the global conference on GBS, the ISSAD conference being held by the WHO and LSHTM.

“Around one in every 1,750 newborn babies in the UK and Ireland are diagnosed with early-onset GBS infection each year,” Dr Jo Mountfield, vice president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said.

It is; therefore, important pregnant women are informed about GBS as a routine part of their antenatal care and all new parents informed about the key signs of GBS in babies so they can seek vital early treatment, which can save lives.

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