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Revised Medical Guidelines Result in a 34 Percent Decline in Life-Threatening Infection in Newborns, and Close the Gap on Racial Disparities

OLYMPIA, July 7, 2004—Changes in neonatal guidelines have led to substantial gains in the effort to prevent Group B Streptococcus (GBS), a leading cause of infection and death in newborns. The changes are also narrowing a gap in racial health disparities nationally, and research at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle could lead to a vaccine for GBS.

“This disease can cause severe illness for newborns, leaving many with long-term disabilities, and some babies die from it,” says State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. “Screening is the key to prevention. Pregnant women who get screened at the proper time can get treatment during labor that can protect their babies.”

GBS emerged as the leading cause of infection and death in newborns in the U.S. in the 1970s and continues to be a leading cause of infection in newborns. In 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published revised guidelines for preventing GBS in newborns. The new guidelines recommend late term screening of all pregnant women and, if identified as a carrier of the bacteria, administering antibiotics during labor to prevent infection in the baby. In 2003, incidence of GBS disease declined 34 percent among white infants and 30 percent among black infants. Incidence rates for black infants had previously been about twice the rate for white infants. Since the guidelines were changed, that disparity has declined 68 percent.

Research at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center is currently focusing on developing a vaccine for GBS disease. A team led by Craig Rubens, MD, PhD, Chief of Infectious Disease, Immunology, and Rheumatology at Children’s, has made groundbreaking advances toward treating and preventing Group B streptococcus infections. Dr. Rubens and his research team have identified a protein that may potentially be used to develop a vaccine to prevent Group B Streptococcus. Their findings have been licensed to a biomedical company for further development, and a patent has been filed and is currently pending. This vaccine for pregnant women could potentially be used for other populations who are susceptible to GBS, such as the elderly and those with suppressed immune systems.

GBS bacteria are present in the birth canal of up to 30 percent of all pregnant women. These women have a one-in-200 chance of delivering a baby infected with GBS, which causes severe infection in newborns, including sepsis, meningitis, and pneumonia. The majority of infections in newborns occur within the first week of life. Infected infants may have long-term neurological problems such as vision or hearing impairment or developmental delays. Overall, 6.5 percent of infected full-term newborns and 22.7 percent of infected pre-term infants die from complications of GBS.

July has been designated as a national “Group B Strep Awareness Month” to help inform women of the need to get screened for GBS during pregnancy.

The Department of Health’s Maternal and Child Health Web site provides frequently asked questions about GBS (

More information about GBS ( is available on the Children’s Hospital Web site. To learn more about the research at Children’s Hospital, call Daniel Mullen, 206-987-5210.

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