New guidelines have been issued in the UK to protect frozen sperm, eggs and embryos stored in fertility clinics from being accidentally destroyed. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government body which licenses and monitors fertility clinics, said that it decided to implement the new storage rules after a number of incidents in which patients' stored material accidentally thawed, because of equipment failure or inadequate temperature controls.
Last year, frozen sperm samples of 28 male cancer patients at Bristol's Southmead hospital were lost because of a refrigeration fault. Similarly, in 2001, a freezer malfunction occurred at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh, also leading to the destruction of some sperm samples. Last year, the HFEA established a pilot 'incident alert system' to run for six months, where each clinic had a designated 'Person Responsible' to check equipment and procedures and take action to avoid mistakes. At the time, the HFEA estimated that there were an average of about five incidents reported by fertility clinics per month, most relating to equipment failure or breaches of protocol which caused serious concern, but no actual harm.
Under the new HFEA guidelines, all fertility clinics storing frozen sperm, eggs and embryos must have an alarm and monitoring system fitted to storage containers by the end of June 2005. The alarm will be designed to automatically alert staff at home if problems occur outside working hours. Emergency procedures will also be put in place in case of power-cuts or temperature problems, along with a staff 'on-call' system. The HFEA also said that samples from patients having medical treatment that can leave them infertile should be divided and stored in different containers, in order to provide a back-up in the case of failure in one of them.
Angela McNab, chief executive of the HFEA, said that the HFEA has 'to make sure we take every step possible to safeguard stored material in clinics', adding that 'for cancer patients in particular, this material is so precious because it can be their only chance of having children'. She continued: 'Patient safety is our top priority at the HFEA and we work constantly with infertility clinics to improve it'.