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FDA Approves Drug That Could Help Women With Postpartum Depression


About one in seven women suffer from depression during pregnancy and right after childbirth. It can be so severe that some women think about taking their own lives. Now, the Food and Drug Administration has approved a new drug that could help. It is the first drug that's been approved just for postpartum depression. NPR mental health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here to tell us more. Hi, Rhitu.


KELLY: All right, so what is this drug? And what's the reaction so far?

CHATTERJEE: The drug is called brexanolone and will be marketed as Zulresso. The manufacturer is Sage Therapeutics. It's not a regular pill. It can only be given as an IV infusion over 60 hours. And it's a drug that's been shown to work very quickly, which is very unusual for depression drugs. It works within 48 hours, as opposed to the two to four weeks it usually takes for other depression drugs to have an effect. And the effects have been shown to last for over a month. So works quickly, and it seems to have a somewhat lasting impact.

KELLY: OK. I was going to ask what the advantages here over traditional antidepressants already on the market. It's the speed. It means a mom can get back to her baby quickly.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. And the experts I spoke to are very excited. Here's Dr. Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who I spoke with by phone.

JOSHUA GORDON: I think this is a major breakthrough. Postpartum depression is a devastating illness with implications not just for the women who are depressed, but for their children and their families. And to be able to offer a treatment that works - but not only works, but works fast - is remarkable.

KELLY: OK. So we hear him hailing it as a major breakthrough. But back to what you said. You have to be on an IV, and for more than 60 hours. That suggests you need to be in the hospital to have this drug administered.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. You have to do it in a hospital or medical center under medical supervision. And the drug itself is going to be very expensive. It's going to cost anywhere between $20,000 to $35,000. And that's not including costs of just being in the hospital or a medical center. So very expensive...

KELLY: And insurance - does insurance cover this?

CHATTERJEE: Well, insurers are still evaluating it for coverage. And I asked Dr. Gordon if he thought that cost might be a barrier for a lot of women in getting the treatment. He said it could be.

But he says this drug is most likely to be useful to women who have severe symptoms - women who are considering taking their own life and may require hospitalization anyway. He told me about one of his former patients who might have benefited at the time from something like brexanolone.

GORDON: My patient was hospitalized within about six weeks after the birth of her child. She spent almost three months in the hospital and took even longer to make a full recovery.

CHATTERJEE: So you know, three months in the hospital - that's expensive. And you take the cost of somebody struggling with this - you know, it's going to impact her health, her baby's health and development. So that cost, he says, is nothing compared to, you know, 20 to 30 grand, assuming insurers will cover it, in helping a woman within a few days get back to her feet and taking care of her baby.

And he says scientists are working on other formulations of the drug that won't require hospitalization, maybe something you can take orally that won't be that expensive. So he says, you know, down the line, we may see other, more affordable formulations, or even newer drugs like it.

KELLY: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee, thank you.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.