Arleen Stone

If successful, a new study at Tygerberg Hospital could possibly save the lives of thousands of women suffering from the pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia.

Pre-eclampsia is characterised by high blood pressure and can be fatal to both mother and child if left untreated. The condition involves the placenta releasing dangerous toxins into the mother’s body that can lead to blood vessel damage and organ failure.

Due to pre-eclampsia being one of the most common causes of maternal death in South Africa, Dr Cathy Cluver, Tygerberg OBGYN and lecturer at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, is currently leading an international study to determine whether a drug used to treat gastric reflux can be used to treat a pregnancy complication plaguing the country.

“Currently the only treatment for pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby and to get the placenta out. Late in a pregnancy it is fairly safe to deliver a baby, but when it is early in the pregnancy, before the baby is fully developed, delivery could be dangerous, or even fatal, to the baby,” said Cluver.

In 2013 Translational Obstetrics Group (TOG) at the Melbourne University in Australia discovered that the drug, esomeprazole, could be a possible treatment for pre-eclampsia.

In early 2016 a double-blind, randomised control trail started in South Africa with the intent to test whether esomeprazole treatment could help pregnant women with pre-eclampsia, still early in their pregnancy, carry their pregnancy up until 34 weeks. At this stage the baby would have an increased chance of survival as it is closer to a full term, which lasts 40 weeks.

“These women put their lives at danger to carry their babies until they are bigger and healthy enough to be born. Some of them stay up to eight weeks in hospital,” expressed Dr Cluver.

Over 100 women have already taken part in the study and 12 are still needed before the study is scheduled to end in two to three months.

The pre and post-birth care of patients and test participants is handled by Sister Erika van Papendorp, the research midwife to the study.

Cluver emphasised how essential Sister Van Papendorp is in the process of pre and post-birth care.

Over 105 babies have been born during the study and although they cannot be certain, Dr Cluver said that even though this trial might or might not prove successful, there will be more trials to determine the cause and possible treatment of this pregnancy complication.

“If this trial shows a difference it may be the first successful treatment for this devastating condition. This would be a breakthrough in medical practice,” concluded Cluver.