UK researchers work to improve maternal health in Malawi


Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland have developed a rapid test to be used in maternity wards in Malawi for testing GBS in pregnant women with the aim of preventing meningitis and sepsis in newborns.

Queen’s researchers in collaboration with HiberGene Diagnostics and Belfast Health & Social Care Trust have developed testing for GBS using LAMP (Loop-mediated isothermal AMPlification) technology.

Maternal health expected to improve

The HiberGene test can identify GBS with very high accuracy within one hour, so it can be used during labour – a strategy called intrapartum testing.

Intrapartum is considered the most accurate time to test as it prevents unnecessary antibiotic use or missed GBS infections.

The test is also simple enough to use as a “near patient” test, in a small lab or room next to a ward, without the need for extensive laboratory training.

Principal Investigator Professor Mike Shields from the Wellcome-Wolfson Institute for Experimental Medicine at Queen’s University Belfast said the rapid test could have a huge impact on the health of mothers and their babies.

“Detecting the GBS within the hour will mean that GBS positive women can be identified and given antibiotics to prevent transmission of GBS during delivery that could lead to serious infections including meningitis, sepsis and death.”

According to a statement from Queen’s University Belfast, around 25 per cent of pregnant women are colonised with the bacterium Group B Streptococcus (GBS). The majority of pregnant women who carry this bacterium will never be aware.

However, the bacterium can be fatal in instances when it is passed to babies during childbirth.

The university added that such cases are extremely rare in the developed world but high in developing countries where there are many risk factors including inadequate services, distance and poverty, the prevalence of serious GBS infection to new-borns.

“In many developed countries, testing for GBS in pregnancy is carried out two to four weeks before delivery, to enable GBS positive women to be given antibiotics to prevent transmission of the infection to the baby during childbirth. The turnaround for current tests is 48 hours, which means testing during labour is not feasible.

“In the developing world, testing that requires a laboratory can be prohibitively expensive and very difficult to access in practical terms, particularly in rural settings. In reality, conventional testing for GBS is not available in most developing countries, meaning proven strategies to prevent GBS transmission cannot be used,” the university said.

The McClay Foundation has supported this project enabling clinicians in the developing world to detect this life-threatening pathogen within an hour at a maternity ward using the HiberGene GBS test.

Maternal health is a huge issue in developing countries where 99 per cent of all maternal and neonatal deaths occur. The neonatal mortality rate is also much higher in Africa, at four times higher than that of developed regions.

Women and babies die as a result of complications during, and following, pregnancy and childbirth, including infection.