Lifestyle & Belief

Epilepsy drug that doctors give to pregnant women increases autism risk for babies, study says

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Ernie Els of South Africa with his son Ben who suffers from Autism during the Els for Autism Pro-am at The PGA National Golf Club on March 12, 2012 in West Palm Beach, Florida. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released their latest figures on autism on March 29, 2012, revealing that 1 in 88 American children has some form of autism spectrum disorder, a 78 percent increase over the last decade.

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David Cannon

Doctors sometimes prescribe an anti-epilepsy drug to pregnant women, but a new study has found that doing so can make the baby five times more likely to develop autism. The study, lead by Dr. Jakob Christensen of Denmark's Aarhus University Hospital, was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

The American Academy of Neurology already warns expectant mothers to avoid the drug, called valproate, Medical Daily reported. To confirm that this warning is in fact necessary, researchers looked at  655,615 children born from 1996 through 2006 in Denmark.

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"This finding isn't necessarily a brand new finding, but it's an important finding in that (researchers studied) really a much larger population," an expert not involved with the research told Reuters. Previous studies have found that babies exposed to valproate in the womb are also at risk for lower IQs and other birth defects. 

“This is an important risk factor and one that can be avoided or at least the risk reduced in women who don’t need to take this and can take another drug,”  Kimford Meador, a neurologist who wrote an accompanying editorial, told Bloomberg News.  “There’s still a great deal of valproate being used. The amount being used in women of childbearing age seems to be excessive given the risk benefit ratio. There’s alternative drugs that have lower risks than valproate.”