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IVF mix-ups not endemic

4 November 2002
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 182
As we report in this week's BioNews, two IVF clinics in the United Kingdom are currently subject to investigations after sperm and embryos respectively were mixed up in the laboratory. A mistake at the Diana Princess of Wales clinic at St George's Hospital in London led to the wrong embryos being transferred to two patients' wombs (although no babies were born as a result). In addition, a mix-up of sperm samples at the Assisted Conception Unit at Leeds General Infirmary earlier this year resulted in the birth of mixed-race twins to a white couple.

It is a big coincidence that the mistakes came into the media in the same week. This is unfortunate because it gives the impression that such mistakes are much more common than they really are. Indeed, the term 'IVF mix-up' seems to imply that there is some kind of inevitable link between the two. One typical media story opened 'Several recent cases of embryo 'mix-ups' at fertility clinics in the United Kingdom will likely fuel concerns that stricter regulations are needed'. However, we know of just two, not several, mistakes that have occurred. These mistakes are terrible for the patients involved and they should never have happened, but given that over 30,000 IVF treatment cycles were performed in the UK in 2001, they are certainly very rare.

This statistic may not calm the nerves of the patients involved in these two instances, nor should it. But it ought to calm the nerves of the rest of the population, who are - quite understandably, given recent media coverage - fast forming the opinion that blunders in IVF units are rife. Getting things into perspective should help to ensure that public and consumer confidence in IVF is not shaken.

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