While my mother’s generation was pregnant, there was a popular drug called Bendectin that helped with morning sickness and was also found years later to cause birth defects. My mom didn’t take it, but several of her friends did. Their children didn’t develop the birth defects associated with the drug, but over 300 women who took the pill reported that their children were born with various kinds of defects and malformations. The drug has been off the market for 30 years, though it may soon be available once more.

Today, there’s a similar crisis going on with a common epilepsy medication called Valproate. It hasn’t been taken off the market however, because it’s often the only drug that will help stop seizures for many women. Unfortunately, the drug has been linked to a number of birth defects, especially spina bifida and hypospadias.

The problem is that women with epilepsy can’t just stop taking the medication once they find out they’re pregnant, so researchers in Australia have been trying to find a safe dosage for epileptic women that will allow them to have children safely.

The research study is the first of its kind and will be published in the September 2013 edition of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Professor Terry O'Brien, a Royal Melbourne Hospital epilepsy specialist and Head of the Department of Medicine at The University of Melbourne has found that the birth defects caused by the medication are closely related to the dosage, so by reducing the amount of Valproate that women take during their first trimester of pregnancy, they can greatly reduce their chances of having children with birth defects.

"For many women on epilepsy medication, the desire to start a family can be fraught with fear that they could have a baby with a range of disabilities or malformations," Professor O'Brien said, but with the new research women should be able to have children without fear of severe defects.

The study included data from the Australian Pregnancy Register (APR), based at The Royal Melbourne Hospital. It included over 1,700 women with epilepsy who are currently pregnant or who have been pregnant in the past. The data was analyzed to see how often children were born with birth defects and if the chances lessened with a decreased dosage of Valproate during the mother’s first trimester. The data was statistically significant enough to make a real difference to the lives of women with epilepsy and their families.

The evidence of the study showed that the lowest dose possible still allowed women to control their seizures, but greatly reduced the chances of having children with spina bifida, which was the most serious defect was caused by the drug.

Melbourne Health (2013, August 25). Epilepsy drug dosage linked to specific birth defects. ScienceDaily.

Keyword Tags: