The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government's fertility watchdog, is updating its guidelines to recommend that doctors make couples aware of the potential risks to children conceived by IVF. The decision follows the publication of a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, US, last November, indicating that babies born following assisted conception have a small increased risk of certain genetic health problems.
The HFEA says that the move is necessary in order to allow patients to make an informed decision about what treatment option to pursue. 'Following the publication of a US study into birth defects, HFEA's scientific and clinical advances committee reviewed our guidance and advice about the risks of treatment. As with any medical procedure, it is important that patients understand what the treatment involves and what the risks may be,' an HFEA spokesperson said.
The CDC study included 9,584 babies with birth defects, of which 2.4 per cent had been conceived using IVF, and 4,792 babies without birth defects, of which 1.1 per cent had been conceived by IVF. It showed that babies conceived through IVF and related assisted reproduction technologies were up to 30 per cent more likely to suffer from certain birth defects, such as cleft palate, digestive tract abnormalities and having a hole between the chambers of the heart.
The HFEA will post new information explaining the potential risks to patients on its website from next month. The information will also emphasise that further research is required to confirm the preliminary findings and that the risk of health problems, relative to natural conception, is very small.
Richard Kennedy, of the British Fertility Society, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper: 'What we need to remember is that the overall risks of an abnormality occurring is increased with IVF but it is still a small risk. Nevertheless, patients need to be aware.'
Some experts are predicting that the move may lead to a drop in the number of patients seeking IVF, with many only using it as a last resort once other avenues have been exhausted. Speaking to the Independent, Dr Gedis Grudzinskas, a consultant gynaecologist in London's Harley Street, said: 'There will now be less of a rush to use IVF depending on age and circumstance. People will be encouraged to use the gently-gently approach of artificial insemination or medication. Doctors have in the past jumped into IVF but they have done so thinking that there was no excess risk of a child being born with an abnormality.'