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26 October 2016

Charities call for better advice over epilepsy drug risk during pregnancy

One in five women currently taking the epilepsy drug, sodium valproate, do not know that it can cause developmental problems or birth defects in an unborn child, should they become pregnant. And over a quarter of women (27%) prescribed the drug had not had a discussion led by their healthcare professional about the risks involved in pregnancy.

Seizures during pregnancy

Professor Ley Sander, medical director of Epilepsy Society and professor of neurology at University College London Institute of Neurology, said: “The majority of women with epilepsy enjoy healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies. However, these figures highlight a pressing need for women to have the right information about all aspects of pregnancy and the risks linked with sodium valproate. Pre-conception counselling is essential to minimise the risks involved with taking epilepsy medicines or having seizures during pregnancy.

“For some women, sodium valproate can be a life-saving drug and the only one that will control their seizures. It is crucial women do not stop taking their epilepsy medication without talking to a healthcare professional beforehand. However, women with epilepsy and their unborn babies face an increased risk of problems during pregnancy and birth. Changing seizure patterns can put the lives of mothers and babies at risk. In a minority of cases, taking certain epilepsy medicines, including sodium valproate, can lead to babies being born with developmental problems or birth defects. With better information, care and treatment before and during pregnancy, it is possible to minimise the risks for more women with epilepsy.”

Birth defects

Sodium valproate (often known under brand names such as Epilim, Epival, Episenta, Convulex and Orlept) is currently the third most-prescribed anti-epilepsy medicine. According to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA, up to four in 10 babies are at risk of developmental disorders if sodium valproate is taken during pregnancy and one in 10 babies are at risk of being born with a birth defect. Women and girls of child-bearing potential should only be treated with sodium valproate if nothing else works.

MHRA toolkit

The MHRA) recently launched a toolkit to help healthcare professionals talk to women with epilepsy about the risks during pregnancy. The toolkit features a credit card-sized patient card to be issued by pharmacists, booklets for healthcare professionals and women taking sodium valproate, and a checklist of important discussion points.

The charities are now calling on the Department of Health to continue to support efforts to ensure that all women are aware of the risks, and are supported to make informed decisions about their care. The organisations say it is imperative that healthcare professionals are given the time and resources, including the MHRA’s toolkit, to make sure these conversations happen.

Mum with brain tumour

Alison Paterson, 37, was diagnosed with epilepsy after she developed a brain tumour just weeks after giving birth to her first son James in 2012. After unsuccessfully trying various epilepsy medicines, she was eventually prescribed sodium valproate which controlled her seizures straightaway. Her consultant made it very clear that she should not get pregnant while taking the drug as it could damage her unborn baby. She was advised to wean herself off the medicine for a year before conceiving and to take folic acid. Eighteen months later, she found out she was pregnant and gave birth to Alastair in July 2015.

She said: “The advice and treatment I received enabled me to have a relatively straightforward pregnancy and give birth to my healthy son. I was shocked to hear the results of this survey. Every pregnancy carries risks, but for women with epilepsy they really need to be aware of the potential risks before they conceive.”

More information

To find out more and to access the toolkit, visit

You can read more about epilepsy and pregnancy here

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