Health Concerns Over Egg Donations Increase, Along with Donor Applications

By Christine Cupaiuolo — April 2, 2009

Time magazine has a story about growing concerns over the long-term health effects of donating eggs, especially cancer and infertility.

The issue has become more urgent as more women are showing an interest in egg donation as a way to make ends meet. Some fertility clinics say that the number of applicants has increased as much as 55 percent in the past four months compared to the same period last year.

Catherine Elton writes:

Doctors say there is no biological reason that donating eggs would cause infertility, but they also cannot say for sure that it doesn’t. The long-term health effects of egg donation have never actually been studied, in large part because the high cost of studies doesn’t “seem justified in terms of what the possible risks [of the procedure] might be,” according to Sean Tipton, spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). He points out that egg donors undergo the same drug treatment as IVF patients — hormone injections and other drugs that stimulate follicles, promote egg maturation and prevent the release of eggs before they can be retrieved — and that studies of the latter population show it is safe.

But some women’s health advocates say that evidence isn’t strong enough, calling for further study and a national, trackable registry of egg donors. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) logs the number of donated eggs transferred to infertile women each year — there were some 15,500 in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available — no one knows how many individual donors those eggs came from, who they were or whether they were exceeding industry guidelines of six donations in a lifetime. (The guidelines are intended to limit the number of offspring from a particular donor and to prevent overexposure to fertility drugs, but they are not based on scientific data.)

“Right now egg donors are treated like vendors, not as patients. Patients need to be followed up,” says internist Jennifer Schneider, who has been advocating for the government to track egg donors since 2007, a few years after her daughter, a three-time egg donor, died of colon cancer at age 31. “After the first few days of being discharged from the IVF clinic and seeing that there were no immediate consequences, they are never contacted again.”

Short-term risks include ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, ovarian torsion or ruptured ovarian cysts. Our Bodies Ourselves Executive Director Judy Norsigian, who also supports a national registry of egg donors, tells Time that women she speaks to on college campuses are generally uninformed about the risks. Elton writes:

A recent study of past donors seems to support Norsigian’s impressions. In an article published in Fertility and Sterility in November 2008, researchers found, for example, that 34% of former egg donors didn’t recall being aware at the time of donation of the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, the most common side effect. The majority of donors experience at least the mild or moderate form of this syndrome, which involves discomfort, bloating or nausea and usually resolves itself on its own. The severe version of this syndrome is rare — only 100 to 200 for every 100,000 women — but its consequences can include kidney failure and death. And then there are other side effects, such as bleeding, infection and death, which are associated with any surgery performed under general anesthesia. But fully 20% of the 80 donors interviewed said they didn’t know there were any physical risks to egg donation at all.

“There is a clear problem about informed consent here,” Norsigian says.

It’s a comprehensive story that raises a number of important issues — please share it.

4 responses to “Health Concerns Over Egg Donations Increase, Along with Donor Applications”

  1. I do want to mention that the study published in February cited by TIME as possibly linking infertility treatments to uterine cancer was NOT a study of women who had undergone IVF, egg retrieval, or even injectable gonadatropins. It only studies women who had become pregnant in the late 70s after use of Clomid, and did not compare these women, who had successful treatment, with infertile women who had had no treatment at all- women who, because of infertility, were at higher risk of this type of cancer to begin with.

    I agree that there does need to be tracking of the health-risks of any reproductive technology- and that includes infertile women just as much as egg donors. There are far more women undergoing IVF procedures every year without egg donation being involved, and they deserve just as much long-term follow up.

  2. This is an interesting topic. As a donor recipient I am very aware of how the system works. I know that my clinic talks to the donor about risks (I had a known donor), but I also think there is a lot of information and many may be more concerned about the money involved and may not really pay attention to anything that may cause concern.

    While I am not opposed to all regulation, I hope that the system will not become overly regulated. Although it is important to respect the rights of the donor, it is also important to allow the donor to make her own (informed) decisions and choices.

  3. i am afraid now because i did donated an egg at 3 times,the last was this oct.15,2010

    how do i know if i have that kind of cancer?

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