Research presented at the recent annual conference of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) suggests that couples with fertility problems pass on higher health risks to their children than do normally conceiving couples. The findings, given by Professor Mary Croughan from the University of California, US, showed that for children born to parents with fertility complications, the likelihood of developing health problems by the age of six rose by nearly a third, when compared to children conceived without difficulty.
The research indicated that infertility treatments, such as IVF may influence the increase of risk. But as the phenomenon also occurred in couples who previously underwent infertility treatment but later conceived naturally, Professor Croughan is pointing to the health risks that cause infertility as a 'baseline risk' rather than suggesting that infertility treatments are creating health problems in children. 'What has caused them to be unable to conceive goes on to cause problems', she said. There was also no variance between the different types of fertility treatment and the link to increased health risk of children in the study.
In the study, around 2,000 children whose parents had fertility problems were compared with around the same number of children who were born without difficulty conceiving. Adjustments were made to take into account higher maternal age and the increased incidence of multiple births for infertile couples. The results showed a higher risk of autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, heart disease, and mental retardation in the children whose parents had encountered problems in conceiving. There was a four-fold increase in the incidence of autism. The researchers have stressed that there figures represent relative risks and the actual risks are still very low. For example, a four-fold increase in autism would mean an incidence rate of 1.56 per cent, according to studies of autism conducted by Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, London, last July.
Stuart Lavery, spokesman for the British Fertility Society, commented that 'there is no doubt that people who have difficulties with their fertility have difficulties conceiving and carrying pregnanciesÉ although it has not been shown that it is the infertility that is causing the problems'. Rather, it seems that it is the health risks that may lead to infertility that are passed on to children. Clare Brown, of Infertility Network UK, called for more research to ensure 'treatment is safe for couples and potential children'.
Meanwhile, an Australian study suggested a link between women who smoke during pregnancy with waist size and the susceptibility to health problems of their daughters. Dr Michael Davies, speaking at the 25th Annual Scientific Meeting of the Fertility Society of Australia, said that the study 'showed that smoking by the daughter was unrelated to the irregularity in weight and reproductive wellbeing, so it appears to be related to maternal smoking in particular'. Over 700 women born between 1973 and 75 were studied, of which 154 had mothers who had smoking during pregnancy.