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Birth Defects Linked To Use Of Ecstasy

The U.K. Times
Thursday, October 22, 1999

by Helen Rumbelow, Medical Reporter

Congenital anomalies after prenatal ecstasy exposure,
by P.R. McElhatton; D.N. Bateman; C. Evans; K.R. Pughe; S.H.L. Thomas
The Lancet Volume 354 (No 9188) October 23 1999

PREGNANT women who take Ecstasy increase their risk of an abnormal baby by up to seven times, scientists disclose today.

The British research is the first to show that the drug can have harmful effects on a baby in the womb, giving rise to defects such as club feet and deformed or missing limbs. It follows recent studies in America on human beings and animals showing that the drug can cause damage to the nervous system in the brain.

The new findings, published in The Lancet, suggest that the drug may harm the normal development of babies during the vulnerable first weeks of pregnancy.

The findings have alarmed health educationists as nearly all of the 136 women in the study took Ecstasy recreationally without realising that they were pregnant.

They were mainly in their early 20s, typical of the estimated quarter of a million British women who take the pills nicknamed "the love drug" every year.

Ecstasy got its reputation for encouraging physical contact because it causes a surge of serotonin in the brain. This makes the user feel friendlier and decreases personal inhibitions, making risky activity - such as unprotected sex - more likely. This is dangerous as all but one of the women took the drug at the same time or within weeks of having sex without contraception.

The Health Education Authority said that the findings reinforced its message that potential users should make themselves aware of the effects of the drug before they took it.

"One of the reasons that people take Ecstasy is to feel closer to other people," a spokesman said. "But a result of this is that they may have unprotected sex.

"People should get to know about these kinds of risks before they take it."

The study was conducted by Patricia McElhatton, head of the National Teratology Information Service in Newcastle, which is funded by the Department of Health to give doctors advice on the care of pregnant women who have taken drugs. Since 1989, Dr McElhatton has been following the progress of a sample of women known to have taken Ecstasy while pregnant.
Out of 136, 74 had taken solely Ecstasy, and the rest a mixture of other drugs, most popularly amphetamines; 13 had mixed Ecstasy use with alcohol. She was surprised to find that only a fifth of the women were teenagers; most were 21 to 25, and a fifth were 26 to 36.

A third of the women had an abortion, a third higher than the national average. This was not because this is recommended, Dr McElhatton said, but through their choice.

Of 78 live births, 12 had congenital abnormalities, which is about five to seven times the normal rate. Three of the babies had a club foot, one had an abnormal skull and one had malformed toes.

One pregnancy was terminated because the baby was so severely damaged. Dr McElhatton said that the problem was that most of the women did not realise that they were pregnant when they took drugs. However, she urged women not to panic if they realised that they had taken Ecstasy while pregnant. "Women should inform their GP and then he can ask us for advice on how to minimise the risks," she said.