The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the United Kingdom watchdog for fertility clinics, has an unsettling report about blunders at IVF labs:
Childless couples are being let down by the very watchdog that is meant to protect them, a damning report has shown. After government inspectors warned patients are not being protected from clinic blunders, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority admitted “there are areas for improvement”.
But it claims to have “made great strides” towards putting its house in order – and next week we’ll see if that’s true with a long-awaited report on embryo mix-ups at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It will also be a test of the HFEA’s fairness in regulating clinics – another criticism raised by the government inspectors.
In February, embryos of three women had to be destroyed because they had been created using the wrong man’s sperm – a frightening repeat of the mistakes at a Leeds hospital which resulted in a white couple having a mixed-race child and a more recent tragedy at IVF Wales where a couple’s last embryo had to be destroyed, and with it their hopes of becoming parents.
The HFEA has refused to comment on the mistakes at Guys and St Thomas’ until its investigations are complete. On Monday a licence committee is due to consider what went wrong at the unit and how to prevent a repeat. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests to the hospital reveal that sloppy lab practices and failure to follow witnessing rules were to blame. Shockingly the HFEA knew the unit had a history of failings on both these issues – but it failed to enforce its own rules and protect patients.
While the HFEA claims these mistakes are aberrational, not everyone agrees:
Guy Forster, from law firm Irwin Mitchell, who represented the heartbroken Welsh couple who lost their last embryo says an apparent drop in category A incidents, the most serious, is simply because the HFEA moved the goal-posts.
His analysis of the watchdog’s own statistics show the number of category A errors climbed steadily from 2003 and peaked at 91 in 2006, but the HFEA then changed its definition of the most serious and they plunged to 12 in 2007 and then 8 in 2008. Over the same period, category B errors, also considered serious, leapt from 38 in 2006 to 130 in 2007. In the same year 104 errors were downgraded to a whole new category – C.
A breakdown of incidents for 2008 is yet to be published, but HFEA documents reveal there are hundreds of blunders. In the six months from May to October this year, 241 separate incidents were reported, and Mr Forster points out that each incident could involve a number of patients.
Professor Brian Toft, the patient safety expert who delivered a damning report on the HFEA after the Leeds errors says the watchdog “not fit for purpose” and has called for an independent inquiry. He fears: “There may be assisted fertility centres where the risk of serious errors being made has not been identified by the HFEA inspectors.”