Group B Strep: What You Need to Know

Over 25 percent of pregnant, adult, and elderly women have a bacteria naturally growing in their bodies, a type of bacteria that is considered the leading cause of infection amongst newborns by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So why have many well-educated women never heard of Group B Streptococcus?”I’m really surprised because I have never heard of this and I would consider myself to be a relatively educated woman.  I’m not sure why they (physicians and/or teachers) don’t tell women about it,” said Erin Brown, sales associate at Omnifics Furniture in Alexandria, Va. “If Strep B is this dangerous, it should be brought to our attention! This could be done in our health classes or sex education classes as early as high school.  Now, I’m really curious about being tested for the disease or how it can be prevented.”Of the 10 women  between the ages of 23 and 32 who were interviewed for this article, only one knew what Group B Strep is and that is only because she had an infection.”I don’t believe a lot of media attention has surfaced about Group B. It’s not taught in health classes in school, but I know if someone is pregnant we teach them about it in our prenatal care as part of the preventative measures we must take to at least counteract early onset disease,” said Dr. Gianapolous, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Loyola University.Group B Strep is a type of bacteria that lives naturally in a woman’s vagina, bowel, bladder, and, less commonly, throat. It is not a sexually transmitted disease and it does not usually disturb the normal balance of bacteria, PH or yeast in the vagina. There is no known way to prevent a woman from becoming a carrier or from having the bacteria cause an infection, such as a bladder or vaginal infection.”There is nothing you can do to prevent it,” said Dr. Gianapolous. “It’s probably caused from the environment and the foods we eat.”

Twenty-five percent of all women carry the bacteria in their vagina and rectum and most women have no symptoms. A simple culture exam can tell if a woman has GBS, but a carrier will not test positive every time she has a culture done. If you are pregnant, be sure your doctor knows if you are a carrier. Being a carrier does not mean a woman has a group B strep infection.

Having numerous strep throat infections as a child or otherwise does not mean a women is more likely to be a carrier than a women who never had strep throat. But carriers are at a higher risk for giving their baby a GBS infection during birth, which can cause a multitude of problems for the baby.

The CDC cites group B strep as the most cause of life-threatening illness in newborns. After the mother’s water breaks, GBS can infect the baby and cause anything from meningitis (an inflammation of the lining of the brain), sepsis (a blood infection), pneumonia, rubella (a virus of the respiratory tract), spina bifida (a malformation of the spine), to death.

Frances Mitchem-Diago, 28, had a vaginal strep B infection a couple years ago. Her doctor gave her antibiotics and the infection cleared up. Her doctor never told her about her being a possible carrier, how threatening the bacteria is to newborns, or that she should be tested if she decides to have a child.

“No! He did not tell me that! He’s usually very thorough with me in his explanations of what’s going on with me,” said Mitchem-Diago.

Half of all babies affected with the disease develop strep B within the first week of life and most of them show signs of infection after only a few hours after birth, known as early onset. But the disease is very preventable. Pregnant women need only to get a dose of antibiotics intravenously during labor to change their odds from 1 in 100 of infecting their babies to 1 in 4000 (Dr. Gianopolous cites 1 in 1000 to be on the safe side).

Dr. Gianopolous warns women who are Group B carriers not to try to treat themselves with antibiotics unless they have an infection, however.

“There is no need to be treated, because in a few months it’ll be back,” said Dr. Gianopolous. “It’s not recommended to even give pregnant women antibiotics before their water breaks because it will come back. Using a lot of antibiotics is causing diseases to become resistant to the drugs, creating these super bugs. Right now Group B is very sensitive to penicillin, but there is some concern it will become resistant.”

For additional information on Group B streptococcus, see Preventing Group B Strep Disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.