December 14, 2001
In the past decade the use of anti-HIV drugs by HIV positive pregnant women has greatly increased in North America and Western Europe. These drugs can significantly reduce the risk of giving birth to an HIV-positive baby. While there are concerns that exposure to anti-HIV drugs during pregnancy, particularly during the first three months (first trimester), can significantly increase the risk of birth defects, so far this has not been the case.
Pregnant women with HIV sometimes also take the following antibiotics to prevent AIDS-related infections such as PCP and toxoplasmosis:
Some pregnant women with HIV who are at high risk for having seizures may also be prescribed the following anti-seizure drugs:
Taken in combination, anti-HIV drugs, antibiotics and anti-seizure drugs could interfere with the growth and development of the fetus, resulting in birth defects. To find out about the impact of the combination of these drugs on the fetus, researchers in London, England, conducted a study. They reviewed the medical records of 195 HIV-positive women and their children between 1994 and 1999.
The researchers found that the use of anti-HIV drugs during the first trimester of pregnancy has increased over the years, as follows:
They also noted that 22% of infants had been exposed to other drugs during the first trimester.
Mothers who received anti-HIV drugs and other medications during the first trimester were seven times more likely to have children with birth defects than mothers who did not use either group of drugs. Mothers who used either anti-HIV drugs or other medications during the first trimester did not have infants with birth defects. The occurrence of birth defects was not more common in women who had fewer than 200 CD4+ cells.
In HIV-negative pregnant women, the use of such antibiotics as Bactrim/Septra, pyrimethamine or dapsone increases the risk of birth defects at least three-fold. These drugs work by interfering with the ability of germs to use the B-vitamin folic acid (folate). Unfortunately, they also affect the ability of the fetus to use folic acid, leading to birth defects. Thus it should come as no surprise that pregnant women who use these antibiotics as well as anti-HIV therapy during the first trimester are more likely to have children with birth defects.
The London-based research team suggests that until further safety data are available, the need for taking preventative doses (prophylaxis) of drugs that interfere with folic acid "in women of childbearing age be reviewed and the benefits of folic acid supplementation emphasized during [pre-pregnancy] counselling."
In Canada, the routine use of Bactrim/Septra in pregnant women is discouraged. If pregnant women must use these drugs then a supplement of folic acid, between 5 and 10mg/day, is suggested.
Studies in HIV-negative pregnant women indicate that low doses of folic acid (400 micrograms/day) may be protective against birth defects caused by the antibiotics previously mentioned. However, this low dose of folic acid does not help prevent birth defects in HIV-negative pregnant women who are using anti-seizure drugs. Clearly, more research needs to be done to find ways of preventing birth defects in pregnant women who need to use anti-seizure drugs.