HFEA statement on the risk of birth defects associated with assisted reproductive technology

There has been a lot of coverage in the UK press in the last week about the possible increased rate of birth defects associated with assisted reproduction techniques such as IVF

The HFEA (Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority) has issued a statement last week that helps to clarify things:

24 March 2009

Recent publicity regarding the risks associated with assisted reproductive technology (ART) has prompted patients to contact either the HFEA or their clinic.

We fully understand people’s concern, however it is important to put information of this type in context.

Part of the role of the HFEA is to keep research under review and it is assisted in this role by its advisory body, the Scientific and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee (SCAAC). At its most recent meeting in January 2009, the Committee reviewed the most recent data on risks associated with ART, specifically around the chance of ART babies having birth defects. This report was published on our website prior to the meeting in January. The minutes of the meeting have also been made available on our website.

As can be seen from the papers, our advisors recommended that we revise our existing patient information on the risks associated with ART, to provide more up to date advice that reflects the latest research.

The risk of birth defects in the general population is low. Two per cent of children in Europe are born with birth defects. Some research suggests there might be an increased risk of 30 percent for babies born as a result of ART.  This would mean that the risk rises to 2.6 percent, which is still low. There is not enough data to be more precise but this is the best estimate currently available.

Research to date cannot say with absolute certainty that this increased risk is due to ART. Other causes including the original cause of infertility, the age of the patient or other unexplored factors cannot be discounted. 

In order to make sure patients understand the risks of ART as well as they can we keep research of this kind under review. And where it suggests there may be a greater risk we share this information with patients in a clear way to help them understand the risks associated with the choices they are making.  

However, we still do not know the complete picture. All we can say with confidence is that there is a small risk associated with ART in general.

We will be revising our guidance and the information we give to patients during April. This information will be available on our website.

Click here to visit the HFEA website