Thousands of women could be spared dangerous pregnancy complications thanks to a new method of screening for pre-eclampsia.
A technique developed at King’s College London doubles the rate at which the problem is detected, a major study revealed.
The screening programme, which uses data already gathered in the standard 12-week pregnancy check, could prevent nearly 3,000 cases of pre-eclampsia a year if it were rolled out on the NHS.
This could significantly reduce the number of babies and women killed or harmed by the condition each year, experts say.
Pre-eclampsia is one of the biggest threats to pregnant women and unborn babies, a leading cause of stillbirth and Britain’s second biggest cause of maternal death.
It is caused by reduced blood flow through the placenta, restricting the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the baby, which can inhibit growth.
It affects about 25,000 women in England and Wales each year, striking in the second half of the pregnancy. Severe cases of pre-eclampsia develop in about 1 to 2 per cent of pregnancies, and in extreme cases can lead to seizures, coma or death.
Giving women a low dose of aspirin every day cuts the risk by 70 per cent, but it must be given before 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Currently NHS guidelines say women should be considered at risk of pre-eclampsia if their medical profile shows any one of a list of risk factors, such as high blood pressure, previous pre-eclampsia or age. But this ‘check-list’ approach only identifies 40 per cent of women with severe forms of pre-eclampsia – and only 24 per cent of women are given aspirin.
The King’s team found they could double this detection rate to 82 per cent with their new screening tool.
This technique takes medical history, blood pressure readings and the results of the ultrasound scan and blood test performed at the 12-week scan. The data is entered into software, which instantly produces an accurate risk score.
The study, which involved 16,700 women at seven NHS hospitals, found the screening could identify and prevent one case of pre-eclampsia for every 303 women screened.
If rolled out across the country and all 900,000 pregnancies seen in England and Wales every year, that would mean nearly 3,000 cases of pre-eclampsia could be prevented.
Researcher Dr Liona Poon, whose findings are published in the Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology journal, called for NHS watchdog NICE to change its guidance to incorporate the screening.
She said it was ‘time to revise guidelines and to move away from a checklist method’.
Dr Basky Thilaganathan, editor-in-chief of the Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology journal, said: ‘Poon and colleagues have demonstrated that effective early pregnancy screening for pre-eclampsia is possible in a routine NHS hospital setting.
‘They make a compelling case for the routine implementation of this protocol to halve the cases of early-onset severe pre-eclampsia cases in the UK.’