Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Amniotic fluid embolism incidence, risk factors and outcomes: a review and recommendations

Marian Knight1*, Cynthia Berg2, Peter Brocklehurst1, Michael Kramer3, Gwyneth Lewis1, Jeremy Oats4, Christine L Roberts5, Catherine Spong6, Elizabeth Sullivan7, Jos van Roosmalen8 and Joost Zwart8

Author Affiliations

1 National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

2 Division of Reproductive Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Atlanta, GA, USA

3 Department of Paediatrics and Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, McGill University Faculty of Medicine, Montreal, QC, Canada

4 Consultative Council on Obstetric and Paediatric Mortality and Morbidity, Victoria, Australia

5 The Kolling Institute of Medical Research, University of Sydney at Royal North Shore Hospital, Sydney, Australia

6 Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, Rockville, MD, USA

7 Perinatal and Reproductive Epidemiology Research Unit, School of Women's and Children's Health, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

8 Department of Obstetrics, Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden, The Netherlands

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2012, 12:7  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-12-7

Published: 10 February 2012



Amniotic fluid embolism (AFE) is a rare but severe complication of pregnancy. A recent systematic review highlighted apparent differences in the incidence, with studies estimating the incidence of AFE to be more than three times higher in North America than Europe. The aim of this study was to examine population-based regional or national data from five high-resource countries in order to investigate incidence, risk factors and outcomes of AFE and to investigate whether any variation identified could be ascribed to methodological differences between the studies.


We reviewed available data sources on the incidence of AFE in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the USA. Where information was available, the risk factors and outcomes of AFE were examined.


The reported incidence of AFE ranged from 1.9 cases per 100 000 maternities (UK) to 6.1 per 100 000 maternities (Australia). There was a clear distinction between rates estimated using different methodologies. The lowest estimated incidence rates were obtained through validated case identification (range 1.9-2.5 cases per 100 000 maternities); rates obtained from retrospective analysis of population discharge databases were significantly higher (range 5.5-6.1 per 100 000 admissions with delivery diagnosis). Older maternal age and induction of labour were consistently associated with AFE.


Recommendation 1: Comparisons of AFE incidence estimates should be restricted to studies using similar methodology. The recommended approaches would be either population-based database studies using additional criteria to exclude false positive cases, or tailored data collection using existing specific population-based systems.

Recommendation 2: Comparisons of AFE incidence between and within countries would be facilitated by development of an agreed case definition and an agreed set of criteria to minimise inclusion of false positive cases for database studies.

Recommendation 3: Groups conducting detailed population-based studies on AFE should develop an agreed strategy to allow combined analysis of data obtained using consistent methodologies in order to identify potentially modifiable risk factors.

Recommendation 4: Future specific studies on AFE should aim to collect information on management and longer-term outcomes for both mothers and infants in order to guide best practice, counselling and service planning.