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Should we cut back on IVF?

Posted by Lara Salahi  January 29, 2014 09:19 AM

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In vitro fertilization (IVF) has given about 5 percent of couples who suffer from infertility a shot at parenthood. But are we overusing the technology without clearly understanding its risks? Yes, say a group of European researchers who came to the conclusion by reviewing studies on women who underwent the procedure and the health of children born using the technology.  

IVF was originally approved for use in women with fallopian tube disorders and men who suffered with infertility. Today IVF is used with couples with other types of infertility-related disorders -- including unexplained infertility. In their analysis published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, the European researchers say we may be overusing IVF to treat an expanded list of conditions without clear evidence that it will be effective. Even if it does work, the procedure is performed without knowing what the risks may be for the women or IVF-born children later on.

Although it’s has been around since the late 1970s, there’s a lot we still don’t know about IVF. More than 60,000 children with born through IVF in 2011, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The researchers argued that there are no standard conditions on how long couples should wait before choosing IVF. The problem is that a lot of research in the field doesn’t track how long these couples have been trying to conceive.

Up to 30 percent of couples who undergo IVF have what’s known as unexplained infertility, where doctors aren’t able to really pinpoint why they’re not able to conceive. Studies have shown that many of these couples may be able to conceive without the help of IVF within three years, the researchers wrote.  

Some research has shown that children born through IVF may be at increased risk for birth defects. Other studies have shown a higher risk for, weight problems, high sugar levels, heart and vascular conditions, and even developmental disabilities. What’s unclear, however, is whether the procedure itself or the underlying infertility that has the greatest influence on the child’s condition.

Multiple rounds of IVF are also where it can become risky for the mother. The higher chance of carrying multiples through the procedure, depending on the number of embryos transferred, also has its risks, they wrote.

Thousands of children are born healthy through IVF, and the procedure has led to the creation of many happy families. It was considered a game changer in the reproductive world when the first IVF baby was born in 1978, and continues to be for many couples struggling to build their own families. For that reason, it’s necessary that the procedure be studied more carefully for the growing number of infertility-related conditions and to more clearly understand its risks and benefits.  

“As a society, we face a choice,” they wrote. “We can continue to offer early, non-evidence based access to IVF to couples with fertility problems or follow a more challenging path to prove interventions are effective and safe and to optimize the IVF procedure.”

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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