Zoloft has been associated with an increased risk of birth defects in infants whose mothers took Zoloft during pregnancy. These Zoloft birth defects run the gambit of minor problems to life-threatening problems that could lead to permanent injury or death. As of May 5, 2014, there have been over 420 lawsuits filed. Many more parents are sitting on the sidelines deciding whether to bring a claim. By 2018, virtually all of these cases have been dismissed.
An Overview of the Association Between Zoloft and Birth Defects
Over the last 10 years, SSRI’s like Zoloft have been accused by plaintiffs’ lawyers of causing everything from Akathisia to Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. I’m making up the latter, but you get the idea. Zoloft has been a controversial drug with a lawsuit target on its back. Some of these allegations have stuck, others have been thoroughly dismissed, and some we still just don’t know. The evidence of an association between Zoloft and birth defects, however, has been growing at an accelerated rate.
Zoloft (Sertraline) is one of the most prescribed drugs in the world for the treatment of various problems. It belongs to a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It is used to treat several conditions, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) social anxiety disorder, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Sertraline works by increasing the amounts of serotonin, a natural substance in the brain that helps maintain mental balance.
Back in July 2006, the FDA issued an alert after a study reported that infants born to mothers who took SSRIs after the 20th week of pregnancy were 6 times more likely to have persistent pulmonary hypertension (PPHN) than infants who were born to mothers who did not take antidepressants during their pregnancy. PPHN causes newborns to have increased pressure in the blood vessels in their lungs. As a result, they cannot get enough oxygen into their bloodstream. The risk of a woman having a child with PPHN in the general population is about 1 to 2 infants per 1000 live births.
While the FDA gathers other data about a potential association between SSRIs and neonatal PPHN, it has been recommended that health care providers carefully weigh the potential risks against the benefits of using SSRIs during pregnancy and discuss the pros and cons with their patients.
Zoloft is – and this is important – a Pregnancy Category C drug. This means that there are no adequate, well-controlled studies in pregnant women. Animal testing revealed that Zoloft given in the last third of gestation and throughout lactation resulted in an increase in stillbirths and deaths during the first 4 days after birth, and a decrease in body weights during the first four days after birth.
No one wants to see anyone suffer, but the reality is suffering to a child – who can’t speak up and communicate their feelings – is the worst. Zoloft’s ostensible effects on newborns have included complications requiring prolonged hospitalization, respiratory support, and tube feeding. Sometimes the problems arise at delivery. The list of problems includes respiratory distress, cyanosis, apnea, seizures, temperature instability, feeding difficulty, vomiting, hypoglycemia, hypotonia, hypertonia, hyperreflexia, tremor, jitteriness, irritability, and constant crying. According to the Zoloft drug insert, these defects were probably due to either a direct toxic effect of the medication or a drug withdrawal syndrome.
Timing may play a part in what birth defects may show up in a newborn. The Mayo Clinic reports that there has also been an association between Zoloft and septal heart defects (a “hole in the heart”) and omphalocele (a defect in the wall of the abdomen) when Zoloft was taken earlier in the pregnancy. The list of possible birth defects is growing, to include various other defects such as cranial skull defects and spina bifida. Zoloft has also been linked to anal atresia (malformation of the anus) and limb reduction defects.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers need to continue to build the case through medical evidence to prove that Zoloft causes these birth defects. But there is enough to make claims and file a lawsuit. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see these cases consolidated into a pseudo class action, i.e. a class action for the purposes of discovery about what was known and what should have been known about the association between Zoloft and birth injuries.
Lawsuits were filed in these cases alleging Zoloft was designed, produced, and distributed without adequate labeling of known risks and warning about the drug’s inherent dangers.
2018 Zoloft Birth Injury Update
A federal judge dismissed the lion’s share of the 300 birth injury lawsuits filed by children and their parents against Pfizer that alleged that Zoloft caused birth defects in children whose moms consumed the antidepressant during pregnancy. The judge did not say that Zoloft does not cause these injuries. Instead, she said that the science is just not there to make a viable claim yet.
But the court looked at the current science. The judge considered all the scientific studies on Zoloft. The reality is that plaintiffs’ lawyers think that the evidence does not support a causal association between Zoloft and birth defects. But the courts require more exacting proof.