The NHS will be sending a letter with information to 20,000 women and girls in England who have a prescription of sodium valproate, over the coming days.
The letter will be sent to women and girls aged 12-55 and will contain information about actions to take if they are pregnant, trying for a baby or haven’t had a recent medicine review.
Sodium valproate can be used to treat epilepsy and bipolar disorder and may be the most effective medicine for some people. However, it is linked to increased risk of physical birth abnormalities, autism and developmental problems in babies exposed to it during pregnancy.
The letter from Dr Aidan Fowler, NHS director of patient safety, will urge women to continue taking their medicines until they have spoken to their doctor. It will encourage women to continue taking contraceptive measures and ask their GP for a medicine review if they have not had one in the last 12 months. It will also advise women to speak to their doctor straight away if they are pregnant or to seek advice from their doctor before stopping taking contraception if they want to try for a baby.
This letter is part of the NHS’ aim to increase patient safety after the findings of the safety review on valproate published in 2020 by Baroness Cumberlege.
Louise Cousins, director of external affairs at Epilepsy Action, said: “We welcome any further measures to ensure that women and girls are made aware of the risks of taking valproate and other medicines while pregnant. Despite recent efforts, we know there are still women who are unaware of these risks.
“This NHS letter, while rather late in the day, should help women taking sodium valproate feel more informed and empowered to prompt conversations with their doctor about their medication. It is only then that they can make truly informed decisions.
“However, GPs and health professionals need the time and resources to make sure these conversations are actually happening, and happening early. They need to make sure women are fully informed about the risks of sodium valproate before they start taking it.
“More also needs to be done to identify potential risks of taking other epilepsy medicines in pregnancy. Epilepsy Action is therefore continuing to call for all women with epilepsy to receive preconception counselling and family planning advice. Women should not stop taking their epilepsy medicine before talking to their doctor.”
The Medicines and Healthcare products Agency (MHRA) guidance says if healthcare professionals prescribe sodium valproate, they must ensure the woman is enrolled in a pregnancy prevention plan. Epilepsy medicines should be reviewed at least yearly.