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Aspirin May Ward Off Pregnancy Complication

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Feb. 9, 2001 -- Taking low doses of aspirin could be a good way to prevent dangerously high blood pressure from developing during pregnancy.

That condition, called preeclampsia or toxemia, is characterized by high blood pressure and swelling, and it often leads to early delivery of the baby to avoid complications for the baby or the mom.

Research has been mixed on the ability of aspirin to block the development of preeclampsia, and there have been reports of side effects of aspirin, such as bleeding from the placenta.

But in the Feb. 10 issue of the British Medical Journal, researchers who reviewed 39 studies involving over 30,000 pregnant women say the balance of the evidence suggests that taking aspirin works.

"There is a benefit," says study author Lelia Duley, MD. "But it's much smaller than what people had hoped for."

Still, Duley, an obstetric epidemiologist at the Institute of Health Sciences in Oxford, U.K., says her study found that taking aspirin reduced the risk of preeclampsia by 15%. It also reduced the risk of death of the fetus or newborn by 14% and the risk of premature birth by 8%.

Those reductions may seem small, and most doctors wouldn't consider them large enough to advise all pregnant women to take aspirin, but Duley says for the women at highest risk of the condition, aspirin can and does save babies' lives.

Aspirin is a so-called "antiplatelet" drug. It is believed that aspirin and other antiplatelet medications can reverse unfavorable changes that occur in the blood and help prevent or delay the dangerous rise in blood pressure and other effects on the body from preeclampsia.

"Part of the problem is we don't know what causes preeclampsia," Duley says. "There has been an enormous amount of research activity to try to unravel what it is that causes this condition."

She says the analysis of thousands of women who have been studied and evidence of changes in the blood of women taking aspirin support the idea that aspirin can have benefit. The problem is figuring out who will benefit most since it's obvious from the studies that the benefit is somehow limited to a small group of women.

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