Many expectant mums are routinely tested for group B strep (GBS) in the third trimester of pregnancy. GBS is one of many bacteria present in the bodies of healthy people; it's usually fairly harmless, and 15 to 30 per cent of pregnant women will carry the beta-strep bacterium without any symptoms.
But GBS can be passed from mum to baby during delivery, and there are 1-3 in every 1000 babies who develop beta strep infections after birth. In rare cases, it can cause sepsis (blood infection), pneumonia or meningitis – left untreated, around one in every 200 babies born to women who have GBS develop sepsis.
This risk is why most mums are tested for GBS. The checks typically involve swabbing the vaginal and rectal area at around 36 weeks, and the current treatment recommended by the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) is to take intravenous antibiotics throughout labour.
Some mums, however, choose not to take the antibiotics – and there's increasing discussion about the possibility that a positive GBS result may be reversed with alternative remedies, such as using garlic and coconut oil.
There are a few risk factors for a baby to develop GBS, including:
- gestation of less than 37 weeks
- more than 18 hours since membranes ruptured (which usually means more cervical exams)
- maternal fever of over 38°C
- known carriage of Group B strep in current pregnancy
- mum has previously had a baby with GBS.
Why do some women refuse antibiotics?
Although it's the current preferred treatment, administering antibiotics still carries risks. Some mums worry that early exposure can lead to lowered resistance later. Other bacteria that could be present within the mum or baby, such as E. coli, can become resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria may not initially present a high risk of infection for a newborn, but with early exposure to antibiotics they could develop into 'super-bugs' that are harder to treat.
In addition, a Cochrane review in 2014 actually indicated that the administration of antibiotics for GBS is not supported by conclusive evidence. The review identified four trials involving 852 GBS positive women, examining 20 years of data comparing antibiotic treatment to no treatment at all. It turned out there was no difference in the rates of infant deaths when comparing those who received antibiotics and those who didn't.
Alternatives to antibiotics
The use of chlorhexidine (an antibacterial antiseptic), which is used for vaginal washes just before or during labour, may be recommended. Many midwives have this in their tool kit for home births and water births.
Alternatively, some women try bathing three times a week with ¼ cup of apple cider vinegar added to the water.
Apple cider vinegar
In addition to apple cider vinegar baths, some midwives recommend drinking a few teaspoons of apple cider vinegar in water daily during the last trimester to prevent GBS colonisation.
Gemma, a mum of two, says that a combination of apple cider vinegar baths and drinks, as well as probiotics recommended by her naturopath, helped reverse a positive GBS result.
Fermented foods and probiotics
Foods rich in good bacteria such as yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut may help promote healthy flora in the gut and birth canal. Similarly, there are probiotics healthcare providers might recommend for reducing GBS colonisation.
Garlic is often used as an antibacterial; mincing a couple of cloves and allowing them to sit for 10 minutes activates the antimicrobial compound allicin, which can be added to meals.
Alicia, a mum of two, says that she swears by garlic as a way to reverse a positive GBS result. "In my first pregnancy I loaded up on garlic between 36 and 39 weeks. By 40 weeks I was tested again and the Strep B was gone," she says. "It also never came back during my second pregnancy."
Coconut oil contains nearly 50 per cent lauric acid, which was originally discovered when microbiologists studied breast milk to determine how it protects infants from microbial infections. The anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-microbial properties of coconut oil are increasingly being researched.
Other remedies may include vitamin C, Echinacea and bee pollen. Pregnant women should weigh up the risks and choices made available to them and discuss any concerns with their health practitioner.
There is currently limited research on the use of preventative, alternative treatments to reverse a positive GBS result, but some may be worth a try. And remember that colonisation of GBS tends to be transient: just because you test positive one week, does not mean you'll test positive at birth.