From Mother To Child

Strep B Can Afflict Newborns, With Disastrous Results

Before their ordeal began, Christian music recording artist Chris Keith and his wife Shelene were on top of the world. Their second child, Jesse, had just been born and was seemingly perfect. But after a few hours at home, that abruptly changed.

"I couldn't calm him down," Shelene Keith recalled. "He just was crying too much."

The couple rushed Jesse to a hospital, where a doctor told them their baby wouldn't live. The culprit was Group B Streptococcus, also known as Strep B. It's one of many bacteria found in the intestinal tract. In adults, it is harmless. But if a mother passes it to her newborn, it can be deadly.

Thanks to a quick-thinking doctor, Jesse survived his first day. But there were complications. Jesse contracted meningitis, a brain infection that can lead to brain damage. Doctors were also afraid that he might end up deaf. But those fears never came materialized. Jesse is now a normal toddler.

This bacteria has been the leading cause of newborn infection over the past decade. About 8,000 to 10,000 newborns become sick because of Strep B every year. About 10 percent of them die.

Many pregnant women are unaware of this risk. Yet as many as one third of all women carry it. Without intervention, 1 percent to 2 percent of their babies will become ill.

Like many expectant mothers, Gloria Brown had never heard of Strep B. Her daughter, Barbara Brown, was born with the infection about eight years ago. She suffered brain damage so severe, it left her with cerebral palsy and little use of her limbs, say doctors.

Her mother firmly believes that her condition was preventable. "It could have been prevented if I had better care at the hospital," Gloria Brown said.

Unlike many women, Gloria Brown showed signs of infection before the birth, according to a lawsuit filed on her daughter's behalf. In July 1999, Barbara Brown was awarded a $10 million settlement from her doctors, hospital and the HMO. Gloria Brown plans to use some of the money to give her daughter better medical care, she said.

Preventing the infection can be simple. If a mother with Strep B is given antibiotics during labor, the chances of her passing it to her newborn are drastically reduced. There is also an easy, inexpensive test for Strep B. The average cost is about $35.

Knowledge of the problem is increasing. More testing is being done.

For the past few years, the Centers for Disease Control has been advocating prevention. It recently announced a 65 percent reduction of Strep B disease in some parts of the country.

Dr. Carol Baker of Baylor College of Medicine has devoted her career to combating Step B. She is now working on a vaccine. "I am sick of going to funerals," she said. "I am sick of seeing devastated babies. I want this disease to go away."