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IVF Babies in Health Alert: Test-Tube Children 30 Percent More Likely to Have Defects, Warns Watchdog
Couples having IVF treatment are to be warned for the first time that their children have a higher risk of genetic flaws and health problems.

Official guidance will make clear that test-tube babies could be up to 30 per cent more likely to suffer from certain birth defects.

The alert has been ordered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Government's watchdog on fertility issues.

Couples are being warned an IVF pregnancy increases the risk of birth defects by up to 30 per cent

It means that the one in six British couples estimated to be infertile will have to balance their desire for a child against concerns that IVF methods could lead to life-threatening defects or long-term disabilities.

A number of studies have already raised concerns over the growing use of the procedure, which accounts for more than 10,000 births in Britain every year.

Research published online last month in the Human Reproduction journal found that IVF babies suffer from higher rates of birth defects than those conceived naturally.

The scientists from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta looked at more than 13,500 births and a further 5,000 control cases using data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study.

They found that IVF babies suffer from a range of conditions, including heart valve defects, cleft lip and palate, and digestive system abnormalities due to the bowel or oesophagus failing to form properly.

In addition, IVF babies have a small but increased risk of rare genetic disorders including Angelman Syndrome, which leads to delays in development, and Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome, which can lead to a hole in the abdomen and learning difficulties.

HFEA experts believe parents should be told of the concerns associated with IVF – although they emphasised that not all the risks are fully understood and more research is needed.

The official warning could have serious implications for infertile couples

One theory is that the fertility drugs which stimulate egg production can lead to poorer quality eggs, which nature would usually weed out.

Another is that older women – whose eggs are of a lower quality – are more likely to turn to IVF to conceive.

Until now, official HFEA guidance on the safety of IVF has expressed only limited concerns about babies born by ICSI – where a single sperm is injected into an egg to create an embryo.

The method is feared to lead to a doubling of birth defects including genital and urological abnormalities, kidney problems and deformities of the stomach and intestines.

But now the watchdog is to warn generally of the risks associated with all types of the procedure.

Patients will be able to access the HFEA's advice on its website from next month, while IVF clinics will have to tell couples of the risks from October.

The HFEA will also make clear that the majority of babies born by IVF are healthy.

Last night, IVF specialist Richard Kennedy, of the British Fertility Society, said: 'We have known for some time that there is a slightly increased risk of abnormalities for all IVF treatments, not just ICSI.

'It is only right that patients should be told about this and it is a good thing that the HFEA is updating its guidance.

'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 still need to be aware.'

Around 2.5 per cent of babies in the general population are born with some form of birth defect, while in IVF, this may rise to around 3.5 per cent, he added.

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: 'IVF should never be the first port of call for someone trying to conceive and we need a lot more money to go into research to help restore fertility for natural conception.

'IVF is often used when couples are "sub-fertile", meaning they take longer to conceive, or by single women wishing to conceive using donor sperm. Patients need to consider the risks.'

An HFEA spokesman said: 'Following the publication of a U.S. study into birth defects, HFEA's Scientific and Clinical Advances Committee reviewed our guidance and advice about the risks.

'As with any medical procedure, it is important patients understand what the treatment involves and what the risks may be.

'Our code of practice says that clinicians must tell patients about the possible side effects and risks of treatment, including any risks for the child.

'Anyone who has concerns about their treatment should discuss this with their doctor.'

[20March09, Beezy Marsh]