Vaccine plea amid rising GBS toll

As the world continues to battle COVID-19 a team of medical experts have issued an urgent warning over the alarming global impact of Group B streptococcus (GBS).

The report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) warned the common bacterium that can be transmitted in the womb, during birth, or in the early weeks of life causes around 150,000 deaths of babies each year, more than half a million preterm births and significant long-term disability.

The two organisations have called for the urgent development of maternal vaccines against GBS to reduce this toll, emphasising they could be highly cost-effective, with significant health benefits, in all regions of the world. The report was launched today at the global conference on GBS, the ISSAD conference being held by WHO and LSHTM from today until Friday.

Dr Phillipp Lambach, medical officer from WHO’s Immunisation, 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.”

For the first time, the research quantifies the major contribution of GBS to preterm births, as well as neurological impairments – such as cerebral palsy, hearing and vision loss – that can occur following GBS-associated infections. Several GBS vaccine candidates are in development but none are yet available, despite having been in the pipeline for several decades.

Professor Joy Lawn, director of the Maternal Adolescent Reproductive & Child Health (MARCH) Centre at LSHTM, and a contributor to the report, said: “Group B strep infection poses a serious challenge to every family affected, and in every country. Maternal vaccination could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of babies in the years to come, yet 30 years since this was first proposed, the world has not delivered a vaccine. Now is the time to act to protect the world’s most vulnerable citizens with a GBS vaccine.”

An average of 15% of all pregnant women worldwide, nearly 20 million annually, carry the GBS bacterium, usually without symptoms. It can then spread from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby in the womb, or to newborns during labour.

Currently antibiotic prophylaxis administered to a woman during labour is the main means of preventing GBS disease in newborn infants, if the bacterium is detected during pregnancy. However, even in regions with high prophylactic coverage, there remain significant health risks, since this intervention is unlikely to prevent most GBS associated stillbirths, preterm births, or GBS disease that occurs later after birth.

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

Estimates suggest that if GBS vaccination reached over 70% of pregnant women, then over 50,000 GBS-related deaths could be averted annually, as well as over 170,000 preterm births. According to the report, the net monetary benefits from a year of maternal GBS vaccination could reach as high as $17 billion, accruing over several years, if vaccines are affordably priced.

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

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