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The scandal of the benzo babies
Elizabeth Wilson finds a group of parents concerned over tranquillisers
JACKIE GILLARD'S newborn son Bradley never cried – the first of many unusual behaviour patterns which have dogged his first 11 years. Always a slow learner, he has now been diagnosed with epilepsy.
His brother Matthew, a year younger, became increasingly hyperactive, suffers assorted aches and pains, dizzy spells, muscle spasms and can't concentrate. Both boys are bottom of their class at school and can form only disrupted friendships. "It is so sad," says Jackie, 39.
She is one of a growing number of parents who believe their children's abnormal development may be due to maternal use of benzodiazepine tranquillisers during pregnancy.
Jackie took the drug during both pregnancies and says there was no warning on the box and that her doctor hailed it as "a miracle pill". She began taking Ativan in 1981 and stayed on It for more than 12 years.
Studies have linked benzodiazepines with cleft palate, shrunken heads, low birth weight, floppy babies, inability to suck and breathing problems. They also cause withdrawal symptoms of irritability and vomiting in the newborn.
But parents like Jackie fear the drugs can lead to later problems such as severe clumsiness, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, hyperactivity, chronic fatigue, asthma and personality problems.
An estimated 1.25 million people in Britain take benzodiazepines legally and unknown numbers buy them illicitly. CITA, the Council For Involuntary Tranquilliser Addiction, is trying to correlate the evidence in a new survey.
Heather Ashton, Professor of Psychopharmacology at Newcastle University, says benzodiazepines could affect brain development by stopping natural tranquillisers from developing. "There is much evidence to link benzodiazepines with floppy babies and that they suffer withdrawal symptoms," she says. "Benzo babies may have similar neurological problems to the babies of alcoholic mothers, such as reflexes which aren't so sharp."
A child deficient in the brain's natural calming mechanisms would be jumpy and nervous, and learning and memory could be affected, she says.
But Sir Ian Hindmarch, professor of psychopharmacology at Surrey University, believes the only effect of benzodiazepines would be for a baby to be born "dopey", and that the drug would tranquillise the infant only for its first few days.
"I don't think you could attribute anything in later life to benzodiazepines in pregnancy." he says. "There is nothing to substantiate this."
Yet, since the early Seventies, the makers have warned against using them in pregnancy. Two of the main producers, Roche Products and John Wyeth and Brothers, do warn against taking benzodiazepines in pregnancy unless it cannot be avoided.
ROCHE'S data sheet warning since 1973 says: 'There is no evidence as to drug safety in human pregnancy, nor is there evidence from animal work that it is free from hazard.
WYETH'S data sheet warns: "Safety for use in pregnancy has not been established."
For Jackie, proving a link has become a way to prevent other mothers from unwittingly damaging their children. Unfortunately It Is too late to help her own. "I cry myself to sleep at night," she says. "Those pills have taken 15 years of my life away and I have to live with what I've done to my kids."
To take part in the CITA survey, call 0151 474 9626; CITA also has a helpline on 0151 932 0102. Susan Bibby, also campaigning for benzodiazepine-damaged children can be contacted at Benzact, West Gate flat, Dogger Bank, Morpeth, Northumberland NE61 1RF.
Women should not suddenly stop taking tranquillisers without seeing their doctors, as this can be dangerous.
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