Wits researchers pioneer vaccine to safeguard women against stillbirth, infant death

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Published Nov 8, 2017


Wits University researchers at the MRC Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit contributed

to the first comprehensive study of Group B Streptococcus, a bacteria that afflicts pregnant women and

causes stillbirths and young-infant severe invasive disease and death. 

Africa has the highest burden,

with 54% of estimated cases and 65% of stillbirths and infant deaths. 

The GBS burden of disease analysis, involving more than 100 researchers from around the world and

comprised of 11 research papers. 

Conservatively, estimates are that Group B Streptococcus infection

causes an estimated 150,000 preventable stillbirths and infant deaths every year. 

Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology at Wits and Director of the Wits MRC Respiratory and Meningeal

Pathogens Research Unit and DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Vaccine Preventable Diseases

contributed to the study. 

“This research is especially important for South Africa, where the highest incidence of invasive GBS ïn

young infants globally has been reported for the past 20 years,” he says. 

“Furthermore, recently we

have shown that at least 1 250 South African women will have a stillbirth due to GBS each year. 

The study, funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, includes data and estimates for

the year 2015 from every country of the world, and includes outcomes for pregnant women, their

babies and infants. 

Previous data on GBS burden focused on infant cases and high-income countries, but

the impact of GBS disease worldwide, especially in Asia, was less clear. 

The new research found GBS colonizes the rectum and vagina of pregnant women in all regions of the

world, with an average of 18% of pregnant women worldwide carrying (‘colonised’ with) the bacteria,

ranging from 11% in eastern Asia to 35% in the Caribbean, totalling 21.7 million in 195 countries .

Although several vaccines to prevent GBS are in development, none is currently available. 

This despite

the disease accounting for more than the combined neonatal deaths from tetanus, pertussis, and

respiratory syncytial virus, for which maternal vaccines are already in use, or further advanced in


This study shows for the first time that a maternal GBS vaccine, which was 80% effective and reached

90% of women, could potentially prevent 231,000 infant and maternal GBS cases. 

The Wits MRC Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit recently completed the first study of

an investigational GBS vaccine in pregnant women, the results of which were published in the

prestigious Lancet Infectious Diseases journal. 

Also, the Unit is currently investigating the potential of

other components of GBS as potential vaccine targets. 

Dr Keith Klugman, Director of the Pneumonia Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Wits

Medical School alumnus, says, “The first few days and weeks of a baby's life are the most vulnerable by


"By filling in one of the great voids in public health data, this work provides crucial insight and shows

the pressing unmet need for the development of an effective Group B Strep vaccine. Immunizing

expectant mothers is a potentially ground-breaking approach that could dramatically reduce the

number of maternal and child deaths.”  

(Supplied content)

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