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Strep B Awareness Month: ‘The impact is unfathomable’

We spoke to Wellbeing of Women researcher, Dr Kate Navaratnam, about working on a busy maternity ward, motherhood and her research into protecting babies from a life-threatening infection


“On the labour ward, people ask you if you have children a lot. When you say yes, they relax.”

Dr Kate Navaratnam, says that foetal medicine has always been her “number one passion” but that when she had children of her own it gave her a different perspective.

“When you have your own kids, it really just brings everything into focus and you understand what the impacts of these conditions might be,” she says.

“Group B Strep is one of those. You deliver a healthy baby, then you find your baby in intensive care. One in 19 of those babies is going to die and another one in 14 is going to be severely disabled.

“These impacts are just unfathomable.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Navaratnam has returned to work as a senior registrar on Liverpool Women’s Hospital’s labour ward.

When she returns to her research funded by Wellbeing of Women, she will be looking to improve treatment for women and babies at risk of Group B Strep (GBS) infections, which can put babies’ lives and futures at risk.

“Labour and having your baby is not a health problem – it's a life event”

“Group B Streptococcus is a normal bacteria that lives in the lower vagina, the perineum and lower anal canal,” she explains. “And it's really common to be there in pregnancy and outside of pregnancy.”

For some babies, however, it can pose a serious threat if passed onto them during birth. So, mothers at risk – those who go into premature labour or whose babies have had the infection before for example – are treated with the antibiotic Benzylpenicillin.

“It’s an effective treatment. But what we want to look at is – can it be optimised?”

At the moment the drug is given to women at risk every four hours during labour – but, Dr Navaratnam explains, there is evidence that drugs like this can work better if given continuously:

“What you would get if you were looking at a graph is peaks and troughs, like a sine wave,” she explains. “But what does that do in terms of suppressing or killing bacteria?

“We want to explore that and if there are better ways to administer the drug.”

Using data and samples from pregnant women Dr Navaratnam and her team will build a clear picture of how the drug works in the body without testing it on people – otherwise known as pharmacokinetic modelling.

Doing this could unveil safer, more effective ways of using the drug – which could lead to clinical trials and changes in how the drug is given to women.

This would help protect thousands more babies from death and serious disability.

“Labour and having your baby is not a health problem – it's a life event,” Dr Navaratnam points out. “But there can be health problems along with it, so women need support to get through that.

“If we can make a high-risk situation positive then that’s what’s obstetrics is all about.”