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Epilepsy drugs, rather than the condition, may cause birth defects

18 April, 2001

Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs) taken by pregnant women with epilepsy may be responsible for a higher than normal rate of birth defects.

Previous studies had shown that children born to women with epilepsy had a higher than normal chance of birth defects, however, this study suggests that the AEDs are the cause, not simply that the mother has epilepsy.

Researchers from the Massachusetts General Hospital screened over 125,000 new born babies to identify three groups; those exposed to AEDs in the womb, those whose mothers had a history of seizures but who were not taking AEDs, and those whose mothers had no history of seizures and were not taking AEDs (the control group).

The researchers found that babies of women who had been taking AEDs during pregnancy had a higher rate of birth defects - 20.6 per cent of babies exposed to one AED in the womb were born with birth defects, and 28.0 per cent of babies exposed to two or more AEDs were born with similar defects. This compares to 8.5 per cent of babies born with birth defects in the control group. The babies born to mothers with a history of seizures but not taking AEDs showed no higher frequency of birth defects than the control group.

As part of the WE Can (Women with Epilepsy) Campaign, BEA has highlighted the importance of female patients with epilepsy being given specalist advice before planning a family, so that their medication can be reviewed and be stablised on an AED that will control their seizures while posing the minimum possible risk to the baby.