At what point does health journalism veer into fear-mongering?
This week, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study looking at the health of babies born via a fertility treatment designed to give sperm a boost.
As with many studies published in the prestigious journal, the media coverage was extensive, with headlines in Businessweek, Reuters, Newsday, The New Republic, Huffington Post, and many other outlets. Most of the headlines trumpeted the study’s finding that a form of in vitro fertilization increased the risk of autism and intellectual disabilities (defined as having an IQ below 70 and limitations in adaptive behavior).
That is factually accurate. But was it right?
I’ll lay out the details of the study, and let you decide.
Out of 2.5 million children born in Sweden from 1982 to 2007, the study looked at the 30,959 born with the help of fertility treatments.
It found that IVF, in general, didn't increase the risk of autism any more than conventional birth; but it slightly increased the risk of intellectual disability. But media coverage focused on autism worries, and the one form of six techniques examined that appeared to be riskiest: a procedure in which sperm is surgically removed from the man and then injected into the egg. This is relatively rare (representing only 3 percent of the studied births between 2003 and 2007, according to Businessweek), but is generally done when the man has weak sperm or is unable to ejaculate it, perhaps because of a previous vasectomy.
In babies born of this technique, the risk of developing intellectual disabilities was slightly elevated – 93 children out of 100,000 had low IQ's compared to the expected 62.
There also appeared to be an increased risk of autism, with 136 cases per 100,000, instead of the expected 29. (This expectation seems horribly low considering that current U.S. figures estimate 1 in 55 children has autism, but that’s another point.) Both increases totally disappeared when the researchers considered only babies who were alone in the womb, instead of twins or triplets. (Multiples used to be very common with IVF as fertility doctors tried to increase their chances of a successful pregnancy, but they have cut back in recent years because of the known risks of multiple births.)
Yet, here are some headlines:
Businessweek: “Treatment for Male Infertility Raises Autism Risk, Study Says,”
Reuters: “Some forms of IVF linked to risk of autism, mental disability.”
The New Republic: “Does a Popular Form of In Vitro Fertilization Cause Autism?”
Only two stories of dozens turned up in a Google search took a different approach: “Little or no increased risk of autism in IVF treatments,” The Guardian (of Britain) reported; and The Huffington Post focused mainly on defusing fear of autism: “IVF, Autism Not Linked, But Study Finds Risk Of Intellectual Disabilities.”
Should this study raise people’s concerns about in vitro fertilization, as most of the media coverage suggested?
"In my view, this is a very reassuring study," Dr. Kathleen Hoeger, director of the Strong Fertility Center at the University of Rochester, told The Huffington Post.
Does it help explain the rise in autism diagnoses since 1982, when the autism rate was about 1 in 2,500 American kids, instead of 1 in 55 today? Not at all. IVF accounts for only 1 percent of all births in the US.
Should this study have been conducted? Absolutely. With at least six common IVF procedures, it’s crucial to compare them and keep track of which ones provide the best outcomes for families.
Should it have been covered the way it was by most news outlets? Personally, I think The Guardian got it right, by putting the news – and risk – into more perspective than its competitors.
So, readers, what do you think?
Karen Weintraub, a Cambridge-based Health and Science writer, is a frequent contributor to CommonHealth.
This program aired on July 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.