Women in the US could soon be able to access a drug specifically developed to treat post-natal depression (PND) – the first of its kind. The drug, brexanolone – or Zulresso, its trade name – will be administered via an IV drip over a 60-hour period, and it’s thought it could help women suffering acute PND almost immediately. The FDA approved the drug for use in the US this week, meaning it could be available from June.
It’s a significant step in post-natal care that could help save thousands of lives. According to research conducted by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at the University of Oxford, suicide is the leading cause of death among new mothers. As many as 1 in 9 women who die during pregnancy or up to one year after pregnancy die by suicide – and progress in preventing this health crisis is slow.
Currently, mothers experiencing PND are mostly likely prescribed SSRIs – a type of serotonin-based antidepressant that is very effective, but can also take up to six weeks to get into a person’s system. Conversely, Zulresso could potentially alleviate the symptoms of PND – despair, anxiety, social withdrawal and intrusive, overwhelming thoughts – with a few days.
“Today’s approval of Zulresso represents a game-changing approach to treating PPD,” said Dr. Samantha Meltzer Brody, a primary investigator of the clinical trial involving Zulresso, na director of the Perinatal Psychiatry Program, UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders in North Carolina. She added that it is “an exciting milestone in women’s mental health”
The drug is not available in the UK – and, even in the US, it is not without drawbacks. Should everything go to plan so that Zulresso becomes available later this year, it will require a hospital stay for patients – and a lot of cash. Treatment will be restricted in its availability – especially to low-income women who, ironically, research shows are more susceptible to experiencing PND. And, once treatment stops, benefits of the drug could tail off quickly.
However, it is step forward. In the past, symptoms of PND have been dangerously conflated with sleep deprivation, or wrongly dismissed as mere “baby blues”. Rather, PND is a life-threatening illness which affects on average 1 in every 10 women within one year of giving birth. This latest development could mean that new opportunities for more treatment become available – or, at least, that women’s healthcare might finally be afforded the attention and investment it requires to keep us more safe. Here’s hoping.