UN-backed study finds cheap drug can prevent deaths among pregnant women

31 May 2002 – An inexpensive drug can halve the risk of life-threatening convulsions and the risk of death in pregnant women with problems of high blood pressure, according to the findings of a major international clinical trial backed by the United Nations and published today in The Lancet.

The three-year study, which received support from the World Health Organization (WHO), found magnesium sulfate effective in saving the lives of pregnant women.

Dubbed the "Magpie" trial, the study was carried out in 33 countries and involved nearly 10,000 pregnant women with pre-eclampsia, a condition marked by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Pre-eclampsia predisposes pregnant women to the convulsions of full-blown eclampsia. Those two conditions occur in about 3 per cent of pregnant women and account for about 12 per cent of maternal deaths.

"The needless death of any mother during pregnancy or childbirth is a terrible tragedy - a tragedy multiplied when she has other young children or a family dependent on her," said Dr. Tomris Turmen, Executive Director of Family and Community Health at WHO. "This trial proves that a very inexpensive treatment with magnesium sulfate given to every pregnant woman when she needs it can cut deaths from eclampsia by almost half."

Paul Van Look, who heads WHO's Department of Reproductive Health and Research, said the findings of the Magpie trial could boost the agency's efforts to reduce mortality from pregnancy-related conditions, which kill more than half a million women every year. "With the new evidence from the trial, our 'making pregnancy safer' initiative has a much better chance of getting the drug more widely used throughout the world, particularly among women in developing countries, who are at greatest risk of dying as a result of their pregnancy," he said.

José Villar, who coordinated WHO's participation in the Magpie trial, said that an estimated 70,000 cases of eclampsia a year could be expected in the 143 less developed countries of the world. "This means that if we gave magnesium sulfate to all women with pre-eclampsia in these countries, we could avoid up to 35,000 cases of eclampsia every year," he said.

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