Potentially Dangerous Pregnancy Complication Leads to Significant Health and Cost Burdens for Mothers and Their Babies

What should be a joyous and exciting time for soon-to-be parents can sometimes take a turn for the worse if the mother develops a blood-pressure related condition called preeclampsia. Globally, preeclampsia and other related disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death.

Because little is known about the extent of the health and cost burden of preeclampsia in the United States, a team of researchers including senior investigator Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, sought to quantify preeclampsia’s impact.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that preeclampsia results in billions of additional healthcare costs and can increase the short- and long-term health risks for mother and baby, underscoring the need to do more to understand the disorder and prevent it from occurring.

Anupam Jena quoto

Here are five things to know:

Preeclampsia is a condition that only occurs during pregnancy and postpartum and can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and the unborn baby. It is characterized by high blood pressure and usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy (in the late 2nd or 3rd trimesters) and up to six weeks after delivery. Symptoms include protein in the urine, swelling, sudden weight gain, and headaches; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. Preeclampsia can’t be reversed and currently, the only “cure” for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.

Driven in part by older maternal age and greater obesity, rates of preeclampsia are rising rapidly. Since 1980, cases have increased steadily from 2.4% to about 5% today. “From an epidemiologic perspective, preeclampsia is growing at a rate more rapid than diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and chronic kidney disease — diseases for which substantial research and treatment funding have been allocated,” says Jena. Although preeclampsia has affected pregnant women for many years, the true cause remains unknown.

Women affected by preeclampsia are at an increased long-term risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and hypertension, and liver or kidney failure in the years and decades after delivery. When preeclampsia causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow to vital organs including the uterus, it can also cause short- and long-term health complications for the baby including low birth weight, and cerebral palsy, epilepsy, blindness and deafness later in life. In addition, the baby may suffer the effects of prematurity if delivered early.

Taking into account the level of care needed to treat mothers and babies affected by the condition, Jena and the research team calculated that the cost of preeclampsia within the first 12 months after birth is $2.18 billion in the United States ($1.03 billion for mothers and $1.15 billion for infants). Considering the short- and long-term health risks associated with preeclampsia for both the mother and the baby, this number is only a mere minimum estimate of the total economic and health burden imposed by the condition.

“This new research underscores the urgent need to continue research into its causes and to implement strategies that may help women manage this condition,” commented William Callaghan, MD, chief of Maternal and Infant Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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