Health

Thursday 2 October 2014

'It was touch and go for my newborn son as silent killer GBS struck'

Although symptomless and harmless to pregnant mums, a common bacteria infection can be lethal for babies if undetected. Luckily for Jen O'Reilly and Conor, doctors caught it in time, writes Shane Cochrane

Mum-of-two Jen O’Reilly with son Conor who was struck by Group B Streptococcus, and baby Emma

After a difficult labour that had lasted through the night, Jen O'Reilly gave birth to her first child, Conor. Though he was a little jaundiced, and had a small cut on his head, he seemed fine. But Jen wasn't.

"Immediately after giving birth, I started to feel unwell," she says. "I had a high temperature. I was shaky and feeling cold. Then I got sick. They said it was a normal reaction, given what I had been through."

It wasn't a normal reaction. But getting sick saved her newborn son's life.

"Later, one of the doctors said that we were lucky that I had developed a temperature during labour. That's what prompted them to test Conor's blood. And if they hadn't tested his blood ... I don't know where we'd be."

Conor had septicaemia, caused by exposure to Group B streptococcus bacteria during his birth.

"From what I remember, it was briefly explained to us. But we didn't know what it was, or how he'd got it. I had never heard of it before. I couldn't understand how it had come about. Was it an STI? Was it me? Did I do something wrong? That was really upsetting."

But Jen had done nothing wrong.

Group B streptococcus (GBS) bacteria are found in the digestive system of approximately 30pc of the adult population.

Carrying the bacteria is symptomless and – for the most part – harmless to adults; but without a test, it's impossible to know if you're a carrier.

"GBS bacteria normally live harmlessly in the bowel and also in the vagina and throat, but it's not clear why some people carry it and others don't," says Caroline O'Connor, medical information officer at the Meningitis Research Foundation in Dublin.

"However, carriage rates do vary according to age and race, and can even vary throughout a pregnancy. Because the reasons for carrying GBS are relatively unknown, there are currently no real measures to prevent someone being a carrier."

About 21pc of pregnant women carry the GBS bacteria in their vagina. And while it's symptomless and harmless to the mother-to-be, it can be incredibly dangerous for the new-born.

During birth, newborns can be exposed to the bacteria. Their immature immune systems leave them vulnerable to infections, and premature babies are particularly at risk. GBS bacteria can get into the blood, causing septicaemia; or into the lungs, causing pneumonia.

When the infection occurs during birth, or in the hours and days after birth, it's known as early-onset GBS infection.

However, a GBS infection can occur up to three months after birth. This is a late-onset GBS infection and it can cause meningitis. In many cases, babies can be left with a permanent disability. In the worst cases, meningitis can be fatal.

Jen was very fortunate that the doctors recognised the symptoms and acted quickly. But Conor was still very ill.

"His blood test came back clear. There was no sign of infection."

It's important to note that GBS infection rates are quite low. A study published in the 'Lancet' in 2004 put the infection rate at six cases per 10,000 live births in Ireland.

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