How risky is IVF? It isn’t what the headlines suggest.


Once again several news-grabbing studies were reported that sent frightened fertility patients to Google in search of more information. Fortunately, the facts rarely warrant the headlines that are used to drive you to use search engines. Most news items are written by journalists whose goal is to get you motivated to read their piece. Then they try to simplify complex issues that they often do not understand. As a result, you’ll often find that the statistics are described in ways that have been exaggerated to promote more interest than is warranted. Here are several recent examples:

  • “Birth Defects more Common in IVF babies”—was the title of a recent press report[u1] . The statement was based upon a review [u2] of 46 studies which suggested a “37% increase in birth defects” detected following advanced fertility treatment. The baseline incidence of birth defects is 3 of every 100 live births. If this information is accurate, it may actually be due to the fact that women that undergo IVF are followed more closely by their OB/GYN’s then women that conceive naturally.  The reality is that if there is any true procedure related risk; it is sufficiently small that we are still trying to determine what it is. By the way, even before this “news” was published the ASRM reported [u3] that the “…the risk of birth defects in children conceived naturally is 2-3% whereas the risk of birth defects in children conceived by IVF is estimated to be 2.6-3.9%.”
  • “Common IVF Fertility Drugs Increase Childhood Leukemia Risk[u4] ”—was followed by a statement that children born following IVF were “2.6 times more likely to become ill with acute lympoblastic leukemia (ALL).” Given that the baseline risk of this cancer is 1 in 50,000; it would translate into a change in risk to about 1 in 43,500 children born through IVF. Here again, it is worthwhile to review and research this topic but it is far too soon to make conclusions linking fertility treatment to cancer; especially since this study only involved patients in one country (France) and therefore may reflect some local environmental effect. Considering that the recent findings [u5] from the World Health Organization listed the incidence of ALL in France to be among the highest in the European region, this headline did not seem appropriately vetted.
  • “Higher risk of Birth Defects from Assisted Reproduction, Study Suggests[r6] ”—was the press release of a large study just reported in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. This was despite the study author’s own conclusion [r7] that “The increased risk of birth defects associated with IVF was no longer significant after adjustment for parental factors.” In other words, when they analyzed the largest data base available to date of women that conceived naturally vs. those that became pregnant through IVF they found a slightly higher risk of birth defects in women that had infertility—even when they became pregnant naturally. Therefore, doctors should continue to counsel couples that have trouble conceiving that they may be at higher risk of having a child with an abnormality; so careful monitoring of their pregnancy is recommended. Not as shocking a conclusion but that was also the position statement [r8] of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Advanced Reproductive Techniques.

In summary, it is worthwhile for patients and potential patients to make every effort to remain informed of the latest research. But rather than believe the sound bite; talk to your doctor about whether or not the study that you read about is accurate, current and actually applies to you.

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