(NEWSnet/AP) – About one in 20 pregnancies are affected by a high blood pressure disorder called preeclampsia.

The complication kills about 70,000 women and 50,000 babies worldwide every year.

But there has been no practical way to know in advance when it might emerge during pregnancy or postpartum, since the exact causes are not known.

“When something bad happens in pregnancy, you want to catch it early so you can avoid adverse outcomes for the mom and the baby,” said Dr. S. Ananth Karumanchi with Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

New blood tests may now help doctors predict and manage the medical situation.

Signs of preeclampsia include high blood pressure, protein in the urine, severe headaches, changes in vision, nausea and sudden swelling in face and hands. The condition can progress rapidly, causing organ damage, stroke, preterm birth, slow growth in the baby and other problems.

To prevent the condition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends pregnant patients get low-dose aspirin if they have particular risk factors such as chronic high blood pressure, Type 1 or 2 diabetes before pregnancy or kidney disease.

The main treatment for preeclampsia is to deliver the baby or manage the condition until the baby can be delivered. People with severe preeclampsia are usually hospitalized and may be given medicines to lower blood pressure, prevent seizures and help the fetus’ lungs develop.

The new technique looks for “biomarkers” indicating preeclampsia in the blood:

  • One such test, by Labcorp, is designed to be performed between 11 and 14 weeks gestation on any pregnant patient. It measures four early pregnancy biomarkers that, combined with other factors, help determine the risk of developing preeclampsia before 34 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Two other tests — another by Labcorp and one from Thermo Fisher Scientific — are used in the second and third trimesters on hospitalized patients to assess whether they are at risk of progressing to severe preeclampsia.
  • Tests by other companies also are in the pipeline.

“They absolutely represent an exciting advancement, especially when you look at the field of preeclampsia and the fact that there’s been very little new introduced to the field in decades,” said Eleni Tsigas, CEO of the nonprofit Preeclampsia Foundation.

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