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Posted at 11:33 AM ET, 12/10/2010

A rare heart disorder that can fell new mothers

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

Readers of today's shockingly sad Washington Post story about Shana Swers, who died soon after giving birth to her son, may want to know more about the disease that took her life.

Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a rare and incompletely understood form of heart failure that strikes apparently otherwise healthy women during the last month of pregnancy or the first five months after they give birth. Because so few women -- an estimated 1 in 1,300 to 4,000 live births -- contract the disease, it's been difficult for medical researchers to get a handle on what causes it and how to treat it.

Nor can they confidently predict whether a woman will survive: Here's a story about one who did.

If all other treatment options fail, a woman with peripartum cardiomyopathy may require a heart transplant. And women who have suffered this heart failure are strongly discouraged from becoming pregnant again. Those who recover may still suffer some degree of heart damage.

Here's an on-line support group that's working to raise awareness of the condition with the goal of helping doctors recognize its symptoms -- which typically mimic those of uncomplicated pregnancy, such as shortness of breath and swollen ankles -- early. Quick diagnosis and treatment may improve outcomes for some women.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | December 10, 2010; 11:33 AM ET
Categories:  Cardiovascular Health, Motherhood, Pregnancy, Reproductive Health, heart failure  
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