In mid-April this year, newspapers in the UK broke the shocking story that the anti epilepsy drug sodium valproate was being given to pregnant women with epilepsy. Despite the many known risks of birth defects associated with taking this medication during pregnancy. While the country’s health authorities had effectively banned the use of sodium valproate in pregnancy in 2018, hundreds of women had still been given the medication without any warning.
If you heard about this sodium valproate pregnancy story, or are concerned about what your anti-epilepsy medication could mean for your family planning, it is important to know the facts.
Sodium valproate and pregnancy: what are the issues?
Sodium valproate is a widely used anti-epilepsy medication which is effective for treating certain kinds of seizures. For some people, it is the only medication that seems to help them. You might know sodium valproate by one of its brand names: Depakene, Depakote or Stavzor (among others).
Taking sodium valproate in pregnancy has long been linked to birth defects and learning disorders when children are exposed to it in the womb. Side effects of sodium valproate in pregnancy include:
Physical side effects
- Spina bifida, which is when bones in the spine don't develop properly
- Malformations of the face and skull, such as cleft lip
- Problems in the development of internal organs and limbs
Learning problems and IQ
- Babies exposed to sodium valproate in pregnancy also have a higher risk of learning difficulties later in life
- Slower development (walking and talking)
- Lower IQ
- Memory problems.
Taking sodium valproate in pregnancy does not automatically lead to these problems – and some babies whose mothers take sodium valproate don’t experience any issues later in life. All the same, the risk of health and development problems is serious.
Related: Folic acid and epilepsy when you’re pregnant
Sodium valproate and pregnancy if you're thinking of starting a family
If you take sodium valproate for epilepsy and want to get pregnant, then it is vital to speak to your doctor about these issues. The FDA issued warnings about sodium valproate in pregnancy back in 2011, and most doctors should be aware of the issues and warn you about them. As the recent scandal in the UK shows, there's a risk that some mothers-to-be may be taking it without knowing about the side effects of sodium valproate in pregnancy.
If you currently take sodium valproate and want to get pregnant, it’s sensible to:
- Speak to your doctor who can refer you to an epilepsy specialist so you can find an alternative anti epilepsy drug
- Do not stop taking sodium valproate without your doctor’s agreement - this could lead to breakthrough seizures
- Think about carrying on using birth control until you have found an alternative way of managing your seizures
Keep learning: Introduction to catamenial epilepsy
Sodium valproate in pregnancy: speak with your doctor
The news that hundreds of women in the UK have been prescribed sodium valproate in pregnancy is very concerning. And, while no reports have yet emerged that this has happened elsewhere, it's important for women taking sodium valproate to be aware of the risks. If you are unsure about your anti-epilepsy drugs and what they might mean for your pregnancy, speak to your doctor as soon as you can.