Are test-tube babies at greater health risk?

The Telegraph (UK) 10 Feb 2013
For couples considering IVF, new research suggesting that it could be to blame for a rise in birth defects over the last 25 years might give pause for thought. The study, published last week in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, had two crucial – and related – findings. The first was that in 14 countries across Europe there was a 50 per cent rise in the number of multiple births between 1984 and 2007, most of which were ascribed by researchers to the increasing use of hi-tech fertility treatments. Secondly, in the same period, the rate of birth defects among these babies almost doubled, from 5.9 to 10.7 per 10,000 births.

“More research is needed but we suspect that the rise in birth defects among multiple births could be the result of assisted reproduction technology,” says Dr Breidge Boyle, one of the study’s authors. The types of defects found to have increased were not chromosomal abnormalities (such as Down’s syndrome), she says, but physical defects that can develop during pregnancy, notably heart problems and digestive abnormalities.

So should couples contemplating hi-tech fertility treatment think again? Some specialists have been quick to point out that the risk of birth defects found in the study among babies from multiple births was extremely small, with 10 cases per 10,000 equating to 0.1 per cent of all multiple births.

“We are talking about truly tiny numbers here,” said a spokesman at Bourn Hall Clinic in Cambridge, founded by IVF pioneers Patrick Steptoe and Professor Robert Edwards, who achieved the first IVF baby, Louise Brown, in 1978.

Specialists also say that IVF is now resulting in fewer multiple births, which are associated with premature delivery, low birth weight and serious health problems, including cerebral palsy and behavioural difficulties.