We study a mechanism of pulse propagation failure in excitable media where stable traveling pulse solutions appear via a subcritical pitchfork bifurcation. The bifurcation plays a key role in that mechanism. Small perturbations, externally applied or from internal instabilities, may cause pulse propagation failure (wave breakup) provided the system is close enough to the bifurcation point. We derive relations showing how the pitchfork bifurcation is unfolded by weak curvature or advective field perturbations and use them to demonstrate wave breakup. We suggest that the recent observations of wave breakup in the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction induced either by an electric field or a transverse instability are manifestations of this mechanism.