The first blood test for preeclampsia approved by the FDA

Preeclampsia is an incredibly dangerous form of high blood pressure that threatens pregnant people’s health—and even their lives. It affects one in every 25 pregnancies.

Earlier this summer, Olympic athlete Tori Bowie died of complications from childbirth. One of those suspected complications is eclampsia, which is when preeclampsia is accompanied by seizures.

Bowie’s death highlighted the statistically higher risk Black women face when it comes to maternal health issues such as preeclampsia and eclampsia.

Now, a new blood test to predict the risk of preeclampsia has been approved by the FDA. This action marks an important step forward in improving maternal health and safety. And it’s one that’s long overdue.

Image: Pexels
Image: Pexels

Why is preeclampsia such a huge problem?

One of the most dangerous aspects of preeclampsia is how unpredictable it can be.

Of course, there are risk factors that increase a person’s likelihood of developing preeclampsia while pregnant—such as being pregnant after the age of 35 or having a family history of preeclampsia. But ultimately, one of the biggest pieces of advice given to prevent preeclampsia is: Be as healthy as you can be.

In today’s modern era of medical diagnostics, surely we should be able to prevent and predict potentially catastrophic maternal health outcomes than that. Yet, until now, there’s been little progress.

“It’s the first step forward in preeclampsia diagnostics since 1900, when the condition was first defined,” said Dr. Douglas Woelkers, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

Will this blood test transform maternal health outcomes?

The test—which is already available in Europe—boasts a 96% accuracy in predicting whether a pregnant person will develop preeclampsia within the following two weeks. Given how vague—or even nonexistent—the warning signs can be, this is a huge deal.

Patients with negative results can breathe a sigh of relief and be discharged from the hospital to continue monitoring their symptoms at home. Whereas, patients who test positive can begin a serious discussion about whether to deliver their babies early. 

“We don’t have a therapy that reverses or cures preeclampsia other than delivery of the baby, which is more like a last resort,” Woelkers said.

Of course, early delivery is no walk in the park. Surgery carries risks for the mother—and pre-term babies face many risks in recovery as well. But making that decision ahead of time precludes the need to make it in a snap when it’s an emergency.

So, while this test does not help cure the condition, it’s information that can bring many more pregnant people empowering information. Especially when it comes to closing the Black maternal health gap, a diagnostic like this can potentially save many lives. With a simple blood test, many more women won’t need to rely on a provider believing their self-reported symptoms to be taken seriously. 

At the same time, we must do better in taking care of pregnant people before they get to this point. We must strive towards lowering barriers to accessing prenatal care and address social inequities that decrease overall health and increase stress. Only then will we truly move the needle on maternal health.

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