Drug-related birth defects avoidable: study

Serious birth defects that strike as many as 2,000 babies each year in Quebec could be avoided, the author of a new study said Tuesday.

MONTREAL — Serious birth defects that strike as many as 2,000 babies each year in Quebec could be avoided, the author of a new study said Tuesday.

Researchers found that more than six per cent of pregnant Quebecers in the study took prescription drugs that are known to be dangerous for fetuses.

The research, led by Universite de Montreal, shows that half of the expectant mothers who consumed the potentially dangerous medications opted for abortions — a rate that was 11 per cent higher than for the rest of the population.

Lead author Anick Berard said these congenital malformations could be prevented with better communication between physicians and patients.

Berard, who believes the statistics are similar for pregnant women across the country, is urging governments to improve monitoring for drugs that pose a risk to embryos.

“Obviously, Canada has been riding on this risk-management program which is very weak, going on the good faith of the prescriber and the user,” said Berard, an epidemiologist from Universite de Montreal’s pharmacy department.

“Well, now we know that it does not work.”

The study, available online and to be published in an upcoming issue of the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, examined data from 109,344 Quebec women, aged 15 to 45, who were pregnant between 1998 and 2002.

Researchers found that 6,871 of the pregnant women filled out at least one prescription for medications that are known to threaten fetuses.

Berard said the potentially dangerous substances include drugs to treat anxiety, epilepsy and severe acne. As an example, she explained that some of the stronger acne medicines can increase the average three-per-cent risk of congenital malformations tenfold.

“You have 30 per cent chance of having a baby with a birth defect — which is huge, it’s one out of three,” Berard said.

She identified major defects as anything from a hole in a baby’s heart to a missing limb.

In the study, the rate of birth malformations in the general population was seven per cent. For the women who consumed the prescription drugs, it was more than eight per cent.

With roughly 80,000 births per year in Quebec, one percentage point can translate to between 800 and 2,000 birth malformations annually.

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