Certain antidepressants like Paxil, Zoloft and Prozac may increase the risk for a fatal birth defect called anencephaly. This causes a baby to be born missing a portion of the skull, brain and scalp.
Even before a woman realizes she is pregnant, she could be harming her baby with the chemical substances that pass through her body and into the baby. Doctors counsel their patients about what is considered safe to take during pregnancy, but if drug manufacturers don't disclose risks of certain antidepressants, how can they — or anyone — offer an accurate assessment?
A mother's use of antidepressants during pregnancy has been linked to several severe neural tube defects — defects of the brain and spinal cord. Every year, 1 in 4,859 babies in the United States is born with anencephaly.
Researchers have found anencephaly — a fatal birth defect characterized by the absence of a large portion of the brain, skull and scalp — in more babies whose mothers had taken selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) one month prior to conception or while pregnant. Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil are all part of the SSRI family of drugs.
Antidepressant use during pregnancy has also been linked to other serious birth defects, including respiratory distress, Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension (PPHN) and heart problems. Many women have filed lawsuits against antidepressant manufacturers after giving birth to a baby with birth defects or who later developed problems related to SSRI use during pregnancy.
Antidepressant Use by a Mother Can Be Fatal to Her Baby
Anencephaly happens during the first month after conception, when the top part of the neural tube fails to close and form the brain and spinal cord. Usually, babies with anencephaly do not have the forebrain, the front part of the brain, or the cerebrum, where complex thinking takes place. Furthermore, the parts of the brain that do form are not protected by the normal skin or bone.
An ultrasound or a blood test of the mother often can detect anencephaly during pregnancy.
The lack of an organ to direct the body's higher-level functions means that the baby cannot survive. Typically, babies with anencephaly are stillborn or die within a few hours of being born. If a baby with anencephaly is born alive, he or she is likely to be unconscious for its short life. The baby is usually blind, deaf and unable to feel pain.
Babies born with the birth defect are kept comfortable with hydration and nutrition, but heroic measures, such as ventilation and surgery, are not employed.
It is thought that a folic acid supplement can reduce the incidence of neural tube defects (NTDs) such as anencephaly.
Studies Linking Antidepressants to Anencephaly
A study that was published in 2007 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that maternal SSRI use is associated with anencephaly. The study, which was associated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that anencephaly “showed a 2.4 times greater occurrence in women who had taken SSRIs in the first trimester.”
Yet, the authors maintain that "the absolute risks associated with SSRIs appear small. …"
Families who have suffered the loss of a baby after antidepressant use during pregnancy have a different point of view. They say they were not warned about the dangers associated with antidepressant use. Many are choosing to hold the drug manufacturers responsible for their loss.