TWO Hampshire mums are fighting for justice after taking a controversial anti-epilepsy drug during pregnancy.

Jo Skews and Louise Duffy have joined a nationwide campaign aimed at raising awareness of the drug and securing compensation for families affected.

Jo's autistic son, Max Pennington, 11, is among about 20,000 children across the UK who have been harmed by exposure to sodium valproate.

It was first prescribed in 1973 but warnings were not put on the packets until last year - even though the risks were known.

During a recent Parliamentary debate MPs said there had been a "systematic failure" to tell expectant women about the dangers of taking the drug.

Campaigners are calling for a public inquiry into the issue and the launch of a compensation fund similar to one that already exists in France.

Jo, 39, of Hythe, said: "I was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of eight and spent years taking different medication until I was put on sodium valproate.

"I fell pregnant after moving to Germany with my partner, who was in the army.

"A doctor working at the army medical centre assured me it was OK to keep taking sodium valproate, but my 20-week scan revealed that Max wasn't growing properly."

Max was born with facial features similar to a child with Down's Syndrome.

Jo said: "A chromosome test for Down's came back clear but Max wasn't reaching his milestones and no-one knew what was wrong.

"After moving to Northern Ireland we saw a paediatrician who referred us to Belfast Genetic Clinic, which diagnosed Max with foetal valproate syndrome."

Max has a raft of medical conditions, including speech problems, breathing difficulties and a sensitivity to noise and smell.

Jo, now a single mum after splitting from her husband, said: "Life is very difficult. He can't do many of the things that other children do because he can't cope in certain situations.

"Max will never be able to live an independent life and it's all down to me being told it was OK to take sodium valproate."

Jo was taken off the drug during her other pregnancies and gave birth to two healthy children, Jack, now five, and seven-year-old Lily.

Louise Duffy, 35, of Millbrook, Southampton, has a 15-year-old daughter Kerry, who suffers from autism and also has learning difficulties.

She said: "When you take this drug they tell you there’s a ten per cent risk of side effects but what they don’t say is there’s a 40 per cent chance that it could give your child learning difficulties.

"Someone needs to take the responsibility – whether it’s the manufacturer or the government."

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told the Daily Echo that a future Labour government would launch an inquiry.

Speaking after a visit to Southampton he said: "The campaign against this drug is finally getting the attention that it needs nationally and Labour would launch an inquiry into the catalogue of failures dating back to the 1970s.

"Compensation needs to be set aside for those people who have been impacted by the results of this drug."

One of the organisations fighting for justice for youngsters such as Max and Kerry is the Epilepsy Society.

A spokesman said: "For some women with epilepsy, sodium valproate may be the only treatment option that will control their seizures.

"However, it can pose significant risks during pregnancy.

"The European Medicines Agency has strengthened warnings and restrictions around use of the drug, but concerns have been raised about how effective these warnings are."