Epileptics may sue over serious birth defects

LAWYERS acting for at least 13 women are considering legal action against doctors who prescribed anti-convulsant drugs during pregnancy, allegedly leading to serious birth defects.

The women, all of whom suffer from epilepsy, conceived malformed foetuses after taking the drugs. Some were able to terminate the pregnancy, but others gave birth to babies with spina bifida, kidney defects and deformed limbs. In most cases, the women complain, they were never told by their doctor of the risks of taking the drugs in pregnancy.

Anti-convulsant drugs used to control epilepsy, such as Epilim and Tegretol, have been known since 1967 to carry a risk of birth defects. Department of Health and British Medical Association guidelines clearly state that, in almost all cases, doctors should discuss the risk of drug side-effects with patients.

Stephanie Moore, 27, is among 13 women whose cases are under legal investigation. In October 1990 she had her first pregnancy terminated at 20 weeks after discovering her unborn baby had spina bifida. She was taking large doses of Epilim and Tegretol and had not been told of any risk.

Mrs Moore, a solicitor's conveyancing clerk from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, was prescribed the drugs by a consultant neurologist when her epilepsy was diagnosed in 1988. 'Before I became pregnant, I visited my consultant with my husband and said we had decided to start a family. He just said it was fine,' Mrs Moore said.

The spina bifida was not discovered until late in the pregnancy and Mrs Moore decided to have an abortion. 'On the day I went in for the termination, I took my epilepsy tablets with me and put them on the bedside table.

'A young doctor, probably a trainee, came in and seemed rather horrified when she saw them. I can't remember her exact words, but I got the impression that I should not have been taking it.'

It was only later that Mrs Moore discovered that there was a known link between the drugs and birth defects. 'It is impossible to say now whether I would still have got pregnant if I had known. But I think I should have been told. The whole experience has been so upsetting that at the moment I don't feel I want children.'

Martin Brodie, director of the epilepsy research unit at Glasgow University, said the risk of anti-convulsants causing birth defects was well known, especially to epilepsy specialists. 'In my opinion, a doctor has got to discuss this with a patient. A woman who wants to become pregnant is entitled to have a say,' he said.

Dr Brodie pointed out that the risk of an abnormal pregnancy was small and had to be balanced against the possibility of an epileptic fit, which might lead to the death of mother or baby.

However, many epilepsy sufferers take a 'cocktail' of anti- convulsants which significantly increases the risks. If a pregnant woman is taking one anti-convulsant drug there is about a one-in-100 chance of a birth defect. If she is taking two different anti-convulsants the risk rises to six in 100; with three drugs it is one in 10, and with four drugs it is one in five. Twenty per cent of epileptics take more than one drug.

As well as spina bifida, recognised side-effects of anti-convulsants used in pregnancy include children born with congenital heart disease, cleft lip or palate, and malformations such as crooked fingers or odd features.

Guidelines issued by the Department of Health in 1990 say patients are entitled to information 'in a way they can understand' about proposed treatments, possible alternatives and any substantial risks, so they can make a balanced judgement. The British Medical Association and the Medical Defence Union, which represents doctors in legal actions, gives similar advice.

However, if any of the cases comes to court some doctors are expected to argue that they were right to withhold information because of the danger of causing stress and anxiety in pregnancy. A ruling by Lord Bridge in the House of Lords in 1985 also suggested that how much a doctor told a patient might be a matter of clinical judgement.

Sanofi, maker of Epilim, and other drug companies list the known side-effects of anti- convulsants in approved medical publications. In some cases, the makers print warnings on packets. New EC regulations will make it obligatory to include clear information sheets with drugs.

Ten solicitors representing the women have commissioned preliminary investigations from medical experts to establish if there is a prima-facie case against either the doctors or drug companies.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Principal Arboricultural Consultant

£35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Principal Arboricu...

Trainee Digital Forensic Analyst

£17000 - £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Trainee Digital Fo...

Legal Recruitment Consultant

Highly Competitive Salary + Commission: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL BASED - DEALING ...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment