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Infertility & Reproduction Health Center

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IVF Risks Mostly Due to Multiple Births

Single-Embryo Transfer May Cut Risk of in Vitro Fertilization
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 26, 2007 -- In and of itself, IVF -- in vitro fertilization -- carries only slight risks compared with natural conception, a new study suggests.

IVF does carry major risks, which include premature birth, low birth weight, stillbirth, spontaneous abortion, preeclampsia, placenta previa, and, to a lesser extent, birth defects and cerebral palsy.

What is responsible for these poor outcomes? To find out, Alastair G. Sutcliffe, MD, of the Institute of Child Health at the University College London, and Michael Ludwig, MD, of the Center for Hormonal and Metabolic Illnesses in Hamburg, Germany, analyzed 30 years of data on IVF.

The main finding: Most IVF risks are due to multiple births, and not to the IVF procedure itself. Twins, triplets, and other multiple-birth children are at much higher risk of premature or low birth weight than are singleton children. And premature birth and low birth weight are linked to a host of health risks.

But even single children born via IVF have more health risks than do naturally conceived children. Nearly all these risks, the researchers find, are due to the same parental factors -- such as older age or genetic defects -- that make it difficult for a couple to conceive naturally.

"The things related to subfertility are probably the factors that result in the subtle differences in children born via assisted reproduction technology and children naturally conceived," Sutcliffe tells WebMD.

The findings closely mirror those of an expert panel convened in 2005 by the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NICHD medical officer Uma M. Reddy, MD, MPH, was lead author of the panel's report.

"The majority of problems we see with assisted reproductive technology are multiple births," Reddy tells WebMD. "But even singletons have higher risk of complications. But is it due to the procedure or to factors related to infertility? More and more evidence suggests it is not due to the procedure."

In vitro fertilization doctors agree with this assessment, says George Attia, MD, director of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

"Most of the risks don't arise from the technique, but from the background biology of the couple," Attia tells WebMD. "Dr. Sutcliffe is right on the spot."

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