Birmingham maternity experts call for urgent action on pregnancy 'drug drought'

Image of a pregnant woman.
Experts are today urging politicians, clinicians, academia, industry, patients and research funders to end this ‘drug drought’ for pregnant women

Leaders in maternal healthcare from Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) have called for lifesaving research into pharmaceuticals for use during pregnancy, in a new report which highlights the challenges of pregnancy-related complications, pre-term birth and pre-existing conditions.

Globally, 2.7 million women and children die each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – including one death every six minutes due to pre-eclampsia. As well as pregnancy-related health conditions which develop during pregnancy, expectant mothers may be diagnosed with infections such as COVID-19 or serious diseases including cancer, and many women enter pregnancy with pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes or depression.

Despite this, only one new drug has been developed specifically for use in pregnancy in more than 30 years, and 73% of drugs used in pregnancy come with no safety information relating to their use by pregnant women. 

Experts from the University of Birmingham and Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust (two founding members of BHP) are today urging politicians, clinicians, academia, industry, patients and research funders to end this ‘drug drought’ through developing and testing new and existing medicines in pregnancy, and help achieve the UK Government’s aim to halve maternal and infant deaths by 2025.

The report, ‘Safe and Effective Medicines for Use in Pregnancy: A Call to Action’, sets out how this crucial research can be managed to de-risk research, mitigate safety concerns and give confidence to women and their clinicians. 

Katie Morris, Professor of Obstetrics and Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Birmingham and Director of the Birmingham Clinical Trials Unit, explained: “The COVID-19 pandemic and confusion surrounding the vaccine has brought into sharp focus the absence of pregnant women in most pharmaceutical trials. The lack of understanding of which drugs can be safely used in pregnancy combined with reluctance to develop new medicines for mothers-to-be adds up to a major global public health issue, but it’s one which could be reversed. With collaborative effort, we can stop excluding pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers from clinical research and give them access to the medicines they deserve.” 

Peter Brocklehurst, Professor of Women’s Health at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Pregnancy complications, including pre-term birth and pre-eclampsia have a huge impact on families and society as a whole. The consequences of preterm birth alone cost the UK economy almost £3bn annually and, while we have the ability to tackle these issues for mothers at home and abroad, we have barely begun. Many of the women and babies who die during pregnancy and birth could be saved, and 15 million babies could be spared the disability and mortality risks linked with being born too early, if we act now.” 

Dr Sheuli Porkess, Medical Director at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, commented: “We completely agree on the need for action to address the needs of pregnant women and the lack of licensed medicines and treatments researched for use in pregnancy and breastfeeding. 

“We have already started work, including on better representation of pregnant women in the design of and recruitment for clinical trials. We are pleased to have maternal health reflected in our Memorandum of Understanding with Birmingham Health Partners and to be working with our members, BHP, the MHRA, HRA and others on this important area.”

The report concludes that, through collaboration, research into medicines for pregnancy could be progressed at pace. By creating financial incentives for investment, building public-private partnerships, addressing regulatory gaps and hurdles and harnessing new technologies, the UK can directly impact the health, safety and wellbeing of pregnant women worldwide. 

The report's signatories – University of Birmingham Professors Katie Morris, Peter Brocklehurst, Arri Coomarasamy and Shakila Thangaratinam – will next establish a major policy commission to review evidence, opportunities and options for policy which will be integral to the formation of clear, multi-stakeholder recommendations to the UK Government. 

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