IVF babies at risk of birth defects

22 Mar 2009, 0323 hrs IST, AGENCIES

Couples seeking IVF treatment are to be warned for the first time that their children have a higher risk of suffering birth defects, disability and life-threatening conditions.

The alert by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the British government’s watchdog on fertility issues, follows a US study indicating test-tube babies are at a 30% greater risk of suffering from conditions such as cleft palates and defects with heart valves and the digestive system than children conceived naturally.

The research, carried out by scientists from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and based on 13,500 births and a further 5,000 control cases, also found IVF babies has an increased chance of rare genetic disorders such as Angelman syndrome and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome.

HFEA experts believe parents should be told of the concerns associated with IVF—although they emphasized that not all the risks are fully understood and more research is needed.

One theory is that the fertility drugs which stimulate egg production can lead to poorer quality eggs, which nature would usually weed out. Another is that older women—whose eggs are of a lower quality—are more likely to turn to IVF to conceive.

Until now, HFEA guidance on the safety of IVF has expressed only limited concerns about babies born by ICSI—where a single sperm is injected into an egg to create an embryo. The method is feared to lead to a doubling of birth defects including genital and urological abnormalities, kidney problems and deformities of the stomach and intestines.

But now the watchdog is to warn generally of the risks associated with all types of the procedure. The HFEA will also make clear that the majority of babies born by IVF are healthy.

IVF specialist Richard Kennedy, of the British Fertility Society, said: “We have known for some time that there is a slightly increased risk of abnormalities for all IVF treatments, not just ICSI.”

Around 2.5% of babies in the general population are born with some form of birth defect, while in IVF, this may rise to around 3.5%, Kennedy added.

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “IVF should never be the first port of call for someone trying to conceive and we need a lot more money to go into research to help restore fertility for natural conception.

“IVF is often used when couples are ‘sub-fertile’, meaning they take longer to conceive, or by single women wishing to conceive using donor sperm. Patients need to consider the risks.”