The recently published findings of a study conducted in Australia have made headlines around the world. Some of these headlines have been sensationalized to attract more readers. One such headline, included data taken so far out of context, that the British National Health System (NHS) published a response to it on its website.

The British newspaper,the Daily Mail, published a headline that states “IVF births carry five times (the) risk of complications.” The attached news story is an account of the Australian study. According to the NHS, the headline is basically true but is taken “frighteningly out of context.”

Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART)The Australian study compared birth outcomes of babies born of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) and spontaneous conception (planned or unplanned pregnancy that occurs without medical intervention). Many forms of ART were included in the study but the underlying cause of infertility was not addressed. The underlying cause can influence birth outcome.

The study involved analysis of more than 300,000 births of singletons and twins in South Australia, 4,300 of which were the result of ART. No higher multiple births (triplets or more) were included although ART often produces higher multiples. Mothers under the age of 20 were excluded from the study, too, even though two of them involved ART.

The study compared birth records with infertility treatment records for a period of 17 years, ending in 2002. The NHS points out that the success rate of ART has increased dramatically in the 12 years since then.

Birth complications examined in the study included stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, and neonatal death. When ART was employed, the rate of stillbirth, for example, was found to be 1.1 percent (slightly more than one stillbirth per 100 births involving ART). The stillbirth rate associated with spontaneous conception was found to be 0.5 percent (less than one per 100 births).

In spite of overhyped headlines, the NHS says this data reflects an increased risk of stillbirths as only two times higher, not the five times indicated by the Daily Mail. Even so, one stillbirth per 100 births is a very small risk.

The NHS response addresses the particulars of the Australian in great detail, including the different classifications of the spontaneous conception group, the different forms of ART that were used, various birth outcomes in general, and various birth outcomes associated with differing forms of ART.

The risk of pregnancy complications is higher when assisted conception occurs but, according to the NHS, the increased risk is very small, regardless of which method is used. The Australian study did not include all births during the study period, did not address the mothers’ underlying causes of infertility, and involved births that happened so long ago that the ARTs used at that time hardly compare with those commonly used today.

Source: Bazian. “Risks of infertility treatments ‘overhyped.’” NHS Choices. National Health Service. Jan 9, 2014. Web. Jan 16, 2014.