By Sophie Borland
Last updated at 9:59 PM on 08th August 2009
GPs are still prescribing an antidepressant known to cause birth defects in unborn children to thousands of women every year, it emerged last night.
Pills such as Seroxat may result in babies being born with malformed hearts if taken in the first few weeks of pregnancy – a time when many women are still unaware they may have conceived.
Several scientific studies have suggested that the class of drugs known as SSRIs, which also includes Prozac, could double the rate of birth defects.
Seroxat is believed to be prescribed to 4 million people in Britain a year and it has been particularly marketed towards women as a drug to relieve anxiety and depression.
But both the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) watchdogs have warned of the drug’s potential dangers and urged GPs not to prescribe them to pregnant women unless completely necessary.
Last night leading doctors warned that the pills were still being routinely handed out to mothers-to-be and women of a childbearing age without warning of the risks.
Dr Tim Kendall, joint director for the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, which develops guidelines for treatment, said that many psychiatrists no longer prescribed Seroxat.
Dr Kendall told the Guardian: “But in primary care it is still quite widely prescribed. GPs are quite flooded with advice. It is unlikely they will have picked up a specialist piece of advice from Nice about mental health.”
American doctors have been given strict instructions by the Food and Drug Administration “not to prescribe Paxil (Seroxat) in women who are in the first three months of pregnancy or are planning pregnancy, unless other treatment options are not appropriate”.
A series of legal actions is about to begin in the US against GlaxoSmithKline, the British manufacturer of Seroxat.
Lawyers representing the women involved claim the drugs firm knew about the birth defects 10 years ago – but GlaxoSmithKline deny this is the case.
David Healy, professor of psychiatry in Bangor, Wales, who will give evidence in the US cases, said the rate of birth defects is doubled from 2 per cent in the general population to 4 per of those on the drugs.
The rate of major defects rises from 1 per cent to 2 per cent for women on Seroxat while the rate of miscarriages also doubles from 8 per cent to 16 per cent.
Mr Healy said: “From the late 1980s there was work which very clearly showed that the SSRI group of drugs ought to be regarded as posing a high risk of birth defects to women in the early stages of pregnancy or when they didn’t even know they were pregnant,”
Last night lawyers suggested that there may be a case for legal action in the UK.
Emily Jackson, professor of law at the London School of Economics, said the cases could potentially be brought against either the GP or the manufacturer for a failure to warn of potential risks.
In 2006 researchers in Toronto found that women prescribed Seroxat and Prozac could be twice as likely to give birth to stillborn or underweight babies.
A study by the Ottawa Research Institute claimed that the products can increase the risk for a range of problems, including premature birth and seizures in newborns.