Screening pregnant women for a deadly infection can dramatically cut the risk of their babies developing it, according to new research.

Experts at London North West Healthcare NHS Trust found an 80% drop in the number of babies developing the bacterial infection Group B Strep (GBS), which is the most common cause of severe infection in newborn babies.

The NHS does not offer a national screening programme for GBS, despite the fact women living in other countries - including the US, Canada, France, Germany and Slovenia - are routinely offered a test.

GBS is the most common cause of meningitis in babies under three months and can also cause septicaemia and pneumonia. It is estimated that around one in five pregnant women in the UK carries GBS in their digestive system or their vagina.

Around the time of labour and birth, many babies come into contact with GBS and a number of those (an estimated 350 a year in the UK) can become infected.

These babies usually develop symptoms within 12 hours of birth - including being floppy and unresponsive, not feeding well, grunting, having a high or low temperature, and fast or slow breathing or heart rate.

In the new pilot study, carried out over 18 months, more than 5,300 mothers at Northwick Park Hospital were screened using enhanced culture media (ECM) for detection of GBS.

The results were so impressive that the trust, which has higher than usual rates of GBS, will now routinely offer screening to all pregnant women at Northwick Park.

Dr Gopal Rao, who launched the pilot at the trust, said: "The results from the pilot are really encouraging. We have seen an 80% reduction in the numbers of babies being born with GBS, from one in every 1,000 births in unscreened mothers to one in every 5,000 births in screened mothers.

"National guidance currently advises that only mothers whose babies are deemed at risk of GBS should be given antibiotics at the time of delivery.

"Despite following national guidance, the maternity unit at Northwick Park, which serves a very diverse community, has historically seen higher than national average numbers of cases of GBS infection in newborns.

"We decided to offer screening to all mothers, using GBS-specific tests, and those women who are found to carry GBS are given antibiotics at the time of delivery.

"The results have shown that with screening we can improve the care we provide our mothers and their babies. GBS can kill and the results from this pilot will enable midwives to offer further reassurance to our mothers about the infection and safe treatment with antibiotics."

The news comes after a doctor told an inquest earlier this month that all pregnant women should be given the test.

Edward Paddon-Bramley died aged nine days after he contracted GBS.

He was born at University Hospital Lewisham and then transferred to St Thomas' Hospital for specialist treatment, where he died on June 5, 2014, the Evening Standard reported.

An inquest at Southwark coroner's court was told by consultant obstetrician Ruth Cochrane: "I feel disquiet that women are not routinely tested for GBS, because it is so common.

"In my view, which is not shared by the Government or my college, we should be testing, and by testing, I mean with a reliable test. At the moment, this is not national policy."

After Edward's death, his mother Fiona Paddon and her husband Scott Bramley, from Greenwich, launched a campaign calling for the Government to introduce tests for all pregnant women.

Their petition has been signed by more than 200,000 people.

Jane Plumb, chief executive of the charity Group B Strep Support, said: "The findings of the pilot show, for the first time in the UK, how effective screening pregnant women with GBS-specific tests is at reducing these devastating infections in newborn babies.

"The current strategy has failed to reduce the rate of GBS infections since its introduction in 2003, and the numbers have been rising. It is time for change.

"More than 200 families a year could be spared the trauma of their newborn baby suffering preventable GBS infection if we rolled out screening across the UK with similar results."