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An Introduction to Preeclampsia

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Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the most frequently occurring medical problem experienced by mothers during pregnancy. Preeclampsia (also written as pre-eclampsia) is the most common serious pregnancy complication, affecting 4-8% of all pregnancies. It is a de novo (i.e. not linked to pre-existing disorders) hypertensive syndrome, which if left untreated can develop into Eclampsia, an extremely dangerous and often fatal condition characterized by blood-clots and seizures.

The Preeclampsia Foundation states that:

“Globally, preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.”

As is evident from the statement above, preeclampsia is a major contributor to maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality worldwide. The British charity Action on Pre-eclampsia (APEC) estimates that:

“Every year in the UK about 1000 babies die because of pre-eclampsia – many of these as a consequence of premature delivery rather than the disease itself. Some 7 mothers die each year from complications of pre-eclampsia in the UK.”

Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure (hypertension), fluid retention (oedema) and excessive protein levels in the urine (proteinuria). These symptoms are not evident during the early stages of pregnancy and as such preeclampsia can be difficult to diagnose. It is only detectable by regular antenatal checks on maternal blood pressure and urine, and as such women without access to adequate healthcare services are particularly at risk.

There is currently no way of curing preeclampsia. In severe cases the only way to relieve the mother’s symptoms is to artificially induce delivery or to prematurely deliver the child by emergency caesarian section. Being born prematurely can have serious consequences and every year four million babies are born with fetal growth restriction as a consequence of preeclampsia.

Although preeclampsia has been the subject of scientific research for many years, the exact etiology of the condition is as yet unknown. Recent research has indicated that the poor development of placenta may be responsible, preventing the transfer of nutrients from mother to baby that are essential to its healthy development. Through our research we aim to find out specifically what it is that causes preeclampsia and to identify methods for earlier diagnosis of the condition, allowing us to manage it more effectively. Ultimately we hope to develop a safe and effective therapy for preeclampsia and reduce the risk it poses to mothers and children around the world.