Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Wednesday, 14 September 2011 17:55 UK

Health committee

MLAs on the health committee heard a call for the screening of expectant mothers for Group B streptococcus, on 14 September 2011.

Group B streptococcus (GBS or B strep) is a bacterium that can cause infection if passed on from mothers to newborn babies during childbirth.

GBS is the most common cause of meningitis in newborns.

In some cases it can result in the death of the baby.

The committee was briefed by an assembly researcher who said the incidence of early onset GPS was at a consistently higher rate in Northern Ireland than in England and Wales.

An antibiotic treatment, IAP, is the favoured approach to dealing with GBS.

Jim Wells of the DUP said the fact that the rate was 30 to 40 per cent higher in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK pointed to the need for further research.

Jane Plumb from Group B Strep Support appealed to the committee to support greater screening of mothers.

She said her middle child had died from Group B strep just 17 hours after birth in 1996.

The committee also heard from Jillian Boyd whose baby daughter recently died in labour.

Mrs Boyd said she would have taken a test if she had been told about the dangers of Group B strep.

"Our baby should be here today. She would be six months old," she said.

The committee also heard from a number of doctors from the department of health and the health trusts.

Dr Elizabeth Mitchell from the department explained current thinking on B strep.

She said the department had issued guidelines to healthcare professionals and these were being updated for publication in January 2012.

The national screening committee view was against screening for B strep until it was proved that screening did not prove to be more harm than good, she said.

Committee chair Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein said she had not heard "anything that convinces me that we should not screen for B strep".

Dr Margaret Boyle from the department explained that there were doubts about the reliability of screening and about the possible dangers of exposing babies to antibiotics with a young age.

Paula Bradley of the DUP said that no-one on the committee had heard of B strep before and it was shameful that they had to learn about it from parents who had lost babies.

Dr Paul Fogarty from the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald explained some of the practical difficulties of mass screening.

"I have hundreds of diseases I don't expect you to know all of them," he added.

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