DAKAR - A bacterial infection passed from mothers to babies kills around 150,000 unborn children and infants a year but has been widely overlooked in developing countries, researchers said on Monday as they urged faster progress on developing a vaccine.
Nearly one in five pregnant women worldwide is infected with Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which causes stillbirths, deaths and permanent problems such as vision and hearing loss in babies, researchers found in the first global study of the disease.
Africa is disproportionately affected, with 65 percent of the world's stillbirths and infant deaths from GBS, though it is home to only about 13 percent of the world's population, according to the study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Most of these deaths could be prevented by a new vaccine that is still in clinical development, the study found.
"The burden of Group B strep has been underappreciated, particularly in low and middle-income countries," co-author Shabir Madhi of Wits University in South Africa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In high-income countries pregnant women are typically screened for GBS and given antibiotics during labour to prevent infecting the baby, which is effective, the researchers said.
But this is rarely done in developing countries where laboratory screening is limited and many births take place at home, they said.
In Africa the rate of infection in pregnant women is also higher than worldwide, ranging from 25 to 35 percent, although it is not clear why, said Madhi.
There is no vaccine currently available to prevent GBS, but one still undergoing trials was found to be 80 percent effective and could potentially prevent 231,000 infant and maternal GBS cases a year, the study found.
"If the vaccine is developed, the place it's most needed is in Africa," Madhi said. Unfortunately, he added, it will likely not be on the market for at least five years.
"It is now essential to accelerate the GBS vaccine development activities," said co-author Johan Vekemans of the World Health Organisation in a statement.