Fit For You: Prenatal Probiotics Research

Sep 28, 2018

Prenatal providers recommend that women undergo a variety of health screenings while they’re pregnant. Among those is a test for GBS, or Group B streptococcus, between weeks 35 and 37 of pregnancy.

GBS is a relative of the bacteria that causes strep throat and is found naturally in about 30 percent of adult women. It is only considered a risk during child birth, when it can infect a newborn - especially in premature births. Women who test positive for Group B strep are intravenously given antibiotics during labor to reduce the chance of transmission to their baby.

Dr. Lisa Hanson wants to reduce the incidence of GBS in women – and the need for antibiotic use during labor. Hansen, who is a nursing professor at Marquette University and director of its College of Nursing Nurse-Midwifery, received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether probiotics might make a difference.

"Our goal is to reduce the colonization, reduce the number of women that need the IV antibiotics, reduce the exposure for the mother and her unborn baby, and hopefully shorten hospital stays and keep the mother and baby healthy," explains Hanson.

She says her research was inspired by a fellow midwife who provides oral probiotics to clients in her home birth practice to prevent GBS colonization. "It just struck a chord with me that it was sort of a brilliant idea to do primary prevention," says Hanson. 

After searching available literature and research to see if there was any scientific basis for the project, Hanson says, "I found some glimmers, but I didn't find the science. So, at that point almost 10 years ago, I decided to make it my research agenda to try to create the science for this very innovative practice."

"It seems beautifully simple ... doing a nutritional intervention with something that's very low risk and relatively inexpensive [that] could prevent the need for the antibiotics."

If newborns are colonized with GBS at birth, they can get a very serious sepsis infection, which can cause trouble with adaptation to extrauterine life and can get sick quite quickly, Hanson explains. While the IV antibiotics work to prevent that, she says, there is still a small chance of early onset newborn disease even after this preventative treatment.

"Antibiotic overexposure is a national crisis," Hanson adds.

As a nurse midwife, her practice philosophy includes addressing health in a more wholistic fashion before needing reactive treatments. However, one of the challenges some clients face, she says, is not having the resources to pay for over-the-counter supplements.

Hanson hopes that her research will educate more women about GBS earlier in their pregnancies, and it leads to a solution that is easily accessible for all.

"A strategy that was preventative, it would be nice to envision a future where all people would have equal access to something like probiotics or an alternative and complimentary approach," she says.