By Karen Weintraub
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. Continue reading