Neural Tube Defects - Consumer Justice Foundation

Neural Tube Defects

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Neural Tube Birth Defects and Lexapro

Lexapro belongs to a class of prescription antidepressant medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These drugs work by balancing the level of serotonin in the brain, thereby relieving depression and improving other mood disorders. Lexapro (escitalopram) was approved by the FDA in 2002 and is currently manufactured by pharmaceutical company, Forest Laboratories. Since its introduction, Lexapro has been approved for the treatment of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, and the drug has joined the ranks of the most popular antidepressants on the market. In fact, in 2007, Lexapro was named the second most commonly prescribed antidepressant available, behind Zoloft, with 29.6 million prescriptions filled.

Regardless of the popularity of SSRI antidepressants like Lexapro, these drugs have been the subject of significant scrutiny in recent years as emerging studies have suggested SSRIs may not be safe in treating pregnant women. According to research, infants born to women who take Lexapro or other SSRI drugs during pregnancy may have a significantly increased risk of being born with one or more major birth defects, including neural tube birth defects. Unfortunately, despite this potential danger, the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that more than 80,000 pregnant women are prescribed SSRI antidepressants in the United States in any given year.

Neural Tube Birth Defects

A neural tube birth defect is a type of congenital malformation resulting from the failure of the neural tube to close completely in utero. The neural tube is a narrow tube which forms during the early stages of fetal development and is the precursor to the child’s central nervous system. Neural tube defects are characterized by an opening in the spinal cord or brain, which occurs when the cells of the neural tube fail to fully fuse together in utero. In many cases, this type of defect is accompanied by damage to the brain and spinal cord, which can result in serious consequences including problems with movement, learning and development. Common symptoms of neural tube birth defects include:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence
  • Lack of concentration and coordination
  • Stiff joints
  • Loss of sensation in parts of the body
  • Chronic allergies
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Anencephaly

Anencephaly is a catastrophic neural tube birth defect characterized by the absence of critical parts of the brain and skull. This congenital birth defect occurs when the head of the neural tube fails to close completely during fetal development, causing the child to be born without a forebrain (the largest part of the brain) or a cerebrum (responsible for senses, movement and thinking). Infants born with anencephaly are typically unconscious, deaf, blind and unable to feel any pain. Some children with this defect may display reflex actions after birth, like breathing and response to touch; unfortunately, the lack of a functioning cerebrum makes it impossible for the child to ever regain consciousness. There is currently no cure for anencephaly, and children born with this malformation rarely live longer than a few hours or days after birth.

Potential Lexapro Birth Defects and FDA Warnings

In 2006, the FDA issued a public health advisory warning patients and healthcare professionals about the increased risk of a serious birth defect called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN) among infants exposed to SSRIs like Lexapro during pregnancy. This notice was directly influenced by a New England Journal of Medicine study published earlier that year, which indicated that infants exposed to SSRIs after the twentieth week of pregnancy were an alarming six times more likely to develop PPHN, compared to unexposed infants.

The following year, the NEJM published two additional studies in which researchers evaluated the potentially harmful nature of SSRI use in pregnant women. According to the first study, infants whose mothers took an SSRI during the first trimester of pregnancy were nearly twice as likely to be born with birth defects like club foot, limb defects and anal atresia. Researchers also found a possible connection between SSRIs and neural tube birth defects, cleft palate and cleft lip. The second study indicated that infants exposed to an SSRI in utero were more than twice as likely to be born with severe malformations like anencephaly, craniosynostosis or an omphalocele. More recently, in 2010, the American Journal of Nursing published a study in which researchers revealed a nearly two-times increased risk of serious heart defects, namely atrial and ventricular septal defects, among infants exposed to an SSRI like Lexapro during pregnancy (0.9% prevalence compared to 0.5%).

Lexapro Use During Pregnancy

Lexapro has been labeled by the FDA as a pregnancy category C medication, a category reserved for drugs with the potential to cause serious harm to a fetus when taken during pregnancy. The FDA has also advised physicians to avoid prescribing category C medications like Lexapro to pregnant women unless the possible benefits of the treatment outweigh the potential risks to the fetus. If you are currently taking Lexapro and you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, consult your physician to discuss alternative treatment options. You should never suddenly stop taking a prescription medication, but with your doctor’s help, you may be able to find a safer way to treat your medical condition.

Contact a Lexapro Attorney for Help

Neural tube defects like anencephaly represent some of the most dangerous birth defects potentially affecting children exposed to SSRI antidepressants like Lexapro in utero. Unfortunately, because many birth defects are established during the first trimester of pregnancy, and because nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, all women of childbearing age taking Lexapro may be at risk of causing irreversible harm to their unborn child before they are even aware they are pregnant. If you or a loved one has suffered from a neural tube birth defect and you believe Lexapro to be the cause, contact a Lexapro attorney to discuss the benefits of filing a Lexapro lawsuit against Forest Laboratories. The main goal of Lexapro lawsuits and potential Lexapro class action lawsuits is to seek financial compensation for your injuries, medical expenses, and pain and suffering.

Victims of serious injury resulting from the use of a dangerous drug are not at fault. Drug companies like Forest Laboratories are responsible for producing and marketing safe medications, and should be held responsible for any adverse side effects sustained by consumers of their products. Unfortunately, some pharmaceutical companies are aware of the harmful nature of their medications and intentionally conceal this information from the FDA and consumers, in order to make their product more desirable to the public. This deceptive practice puts millions of people unknowingly at risk of suffering unnecessary harm, robbing consumers of their right to make an educated decision about their prescription medications by being armed with accurate knowledge about the risks and benefits involved. Only by hiring an experienced Lexapro lawyer to represent their case can victims of alleged Lexapro birth defects protect their rights, stand up to big drug companies, and collect the compensation they are entitled to.

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