Prescription Drug Use During Pregnancy Harms Fetus


Expectant mothers take note: a recent Canadian study found that more than 6 percent of pregnant women are taking prescription drugs known to harm the fetus. The University of Montreal investigation reported that half the women will voluntarily terminate their pregnancy because they fear their child will be born with birth defects.

Every year an estimated 8 million children, which represents about 6 percent of total births worldwide, are born with a serious birth defect that is genetic or partially genetic in origin, according to the March of Dimes. In addition, hundreds of thousands more are born with serious defects related to post-conception reasons, such as exposure to alcohol, measles, and syphilis. At least 3.3 million children younger than 5 years of age die each year because of serious birth defects, and an estimated 3.2 million of those who survive may be physical or mentally disabled for life.

In the University of Montreal study, the researchers evaluated data from the Quebec Pregnancy Registry on 109,344 women aged 15 to 45 who were pregnant between 1998 and 2002. They discovered that 6,871 women had taken one of 11 prescription drugs during their pregnancy that are known to be harmful to fetuses. Of this group of women, 3,229 elected abortion, 6 percent had a miscarriage, and 8.2 percent gave birth to a child who had a major congenital defect.

Anick B-ard, the study’s senior author and a professor at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Pharmacy and director of the Research Unit on Medications and Pregnancy of the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Center, noted in the University’s news release that “I never expected such results and I was extremely surprised.” She went on to note that the rate of birth defects in the general population of Quebec is approximately 7 percent, compared with the 8.2 percent seen in the study.


“If there are 80,000 births in Quebec per year, a one percent difference translates into an additional 800 children born with serious malformations,” she said. These infants will either die or live with serious mental and/or physical health problems for the rest of their lives.

The study’s researchers also found that 11,400 prescriptions for dangerous drugs such as isotretinoin (for treatment of acne and rosacea), anxiolytic benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety treatment), and antiepileptics (for epileptic seizures) were taken by women during pregnancy. Other drugs that can harm the fetus, including those for hypertension and infections, were also widely used. Dr. B-rard discovered, for example, that of the 73 pregnant women who used isotretinoin in Quebec, 78 percent got an abortion. Use of isotretinoin increases the risk of birth defects by 30 percent.

Drugs that are medically necessary, such as antiepileptics, must be carefully monitored pregnancy. Dr. B-ard noted that such medications should be used at “a strict minimum during the first trimester,” and that women should visit her physician regularly during her pregnancy.

The March of Dimes notes that women who are taking certain medications during pregnancy should consult their doctor before becoming pregnant, as they may need to switch to a safer drug for the duration of the pregnancy. Some of these drugs include ACE inhibitors (e.g., enalapril, captopril), androgens and testosterone by-products, anticancer drugs, carbamazepine, levothyroxine, lithium, phenytoin, streptomycin, kanamycin, tetracycline, trimethadione, paramethadione, valproic acid, and warfarin and other coumarin by-products. Women who are pregnant and who are taking any of the following drugs should stop the drugs immediately and contact their physician: isotretinoins, acitretin, lenalidomide, and thalidomide. These drugs greatly increase the risk of harm to the fetus.

March of Dimes
University of Montreal



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