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Effect of Prenatal Diagnosis on Epidemiologic Studies of Birth Defects

Cragan, Janet D.1; Khoury, Muin J.2

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Prenatal diagnostic technology makes it possible to offer women the option of electively terminating pregnancies affected by birth defects. Excluding these pregnancies from epidemiologic studies may affect study results. We explored this effect using examples from the literature. We calculated the bias in the odds ratio caused by excluding prenatally diagnosed pregnancies when the exposure of interest is not correlated with the likelihood of terminating an affected pregnancy and when it is correlated with an increase or decrease in this likelihood. We assumed that control infants did not have birth defects. When the exposure is not associated with the likelihood of a pregnancy termination, studies excluding terminations suffer a loss of precision. When the exposure is associated with an increase or decrease in this likelihood, the odds ratios are biased toward or away from the null, respectively. The magnitude of the bias will vary according to characteristics of the study population such as the prevalence of the exposure and the frequency with which prenatal diagnosis and elective termination are used. Whenever possible, pregnancies terminated after prenatal diagnosis must be included in epidemiologic studies.

From the 1Division of Birth Defects, Child Development, and Disability and Health, and 2Office of Genetics and Disease Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA (Division and Office names pending approval).

Submitted November 1, 1999; final version accepted May 1, 2000.

Address reprint requests to: Janet D. Cragan, Mailstop F-45, Division of Birth Defects, Child Development, Disability and Health, National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4770 Buford Highway NE, Atlanta, GA 30341-3724.

The development and widespread use of prenatal diagnostic techniques has allowed physicians to identify birth defects well before the expected date of delivery. Screening for neural tube defects using maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein levels and identification of Down syndrome through amniocentesis are now regular parts of obstetric practice. High-resolution ultrasound and fetal echocardiography permit the diagnosis of a wide range of anomalies from major defects such as skeletal dysplasias, diaphragmatic hernia, gastroschisis, and hypoplastic left heart to more subtle problems such as urinary tract dilations and choroid plexus cysts. 1–4 Advances in three-dimensional ultrasound and fetal magnetic resonance imaging are improving the ability to visualize conditions such as cleft lip, club foot, syndactyly, and facial dysmorphisms as well as the finer characteristics of major defects identified first by two-dimensional ultrasound. 5,6 As a result of these advances, women may now be offered a choice of options in the management of affected pregnancies, including elective termination. The exercise of these options has significant implications for epidemiologic studies of birth defects.

Estimates of the prevalence of neural tube defects indicate that, in some populations, up to 50% of all pregnancies with any neural tube defect, and up to 80% of those with anencephaly, may be electively terminated after prenatal diagnosis. 7–9 Because such terminations may occur outside the in-patient hospital setting, studies of neural tube defects that ascertain defects only among infants born in hospitals systematically exclude these pregnancies. A variety of factors may influence whether a congenital defect is diagnosed prenatally and how an affected pregnancy is managed. These factors include patients’ and practitioners’ access to and use of prenatal diagnostic techniques; the sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value of the diagnostic techniques for specific defects; the skill of the provider using these techniques; the nature and perceived severity of the defect diagnosed; and the decisions made by individual women concerning pregnancy management. If one or a combination of these variables is associated with the risk factor of interest, the result of an epidemiologic study may be biased if electively terminated pregnancies are not included.

In this paper, we explore, using examples from the literature, the potential effect that excluding prenatally diagnosed and electively terminated pregnancies has on case-control studies of birth defects. Although the studies cited here examine neural tube defects, the conclusions are applicable to studies of any defect for which prenatal diagnosis and elective termination are realistic options.

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Subjects and Methods

In classic case-control studies, odds ratios (ORs) are calculated as AD/BC, where

A = the number of exposed pregnancies with the defect,

B = the number of exposed pregnancies without the defect,

C = the number of unexposed pregnancies with the defect, and

D = the number of unexposed pregnancies without the defect.

In the presence of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination among affected pregnancies, ORs are calculated as AS1D/ BCS2, where

S1 = the percentage of exposed pregnancies with the defect that are not terminated,

S2 = the percentage of unexposed pregnancies with the defect that are not terminated,

AS1 = the number of exposed pregnancies with the defect that are not terminated, and

CS2 = the number of unexposed pregnancies with the defect that are not terminated.

The bias in the OR due to the exclusion of prenatally diagnosed and electively terminated pregnancies is calculated as S1/ S2.

The exclusion of prenatally diagnosed defects among electively terminated pregnancies will bias the risk estimate in a case-control study only if prenatal diagnosis followed by elective termination is related to both the risk factor and the birth defect being studied in one of three possible ways: (1) the risk factor of interest is not related to whether an affected pregnancy is terminated after prenatal diagnosis (S1 =S2), (2) the presence of the risk factor is associated with an increased likelihood that an affected pregnancy is terminated after prenatal diagnosis (S1 <S2), and (3) the presence of the risk factor is associated with a decreased likelihood that an affected pregnancy is terminated after prenatal diagnosis (S1 >S2). We assessed these relations using data from published and theoretical studies of neural tube defects.

To assess the bias when S1 =S2, we used data from the Atlanta Birth Defects Case Control Study from 1968 through 1980 10 evaluating the relation between multivitamin use by pregnant women and their risk of having a pregnancy affected by anencephaly. Infants used as control subjects in this study did not have birth defects. To calculate the potential effect of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on this relation, we assumed that 59% of pregnancies with anencephaly were electively terminated and that this percentage did not change with multivitamin use. This estimate was taken from a study of the effect of prenatal diagnosis on neural tube defect rates on the data of the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program, an active surveillance system for birth defects in the same population, from 1990 through 1991. 7

To assess the bias when S1 <S2, we also used data from the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program for 1990–1991 7 to evaluate the effect of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on the relation between race and the risk of having a pregnancy affected by anencephaly. In these data, 64% of pregnancies with anencephaly among white women were terminated compared with 38% of such pregnancies among black women. Because only affected infants are ascertained by the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program, the data on affected pregnancies were applied to a theoretical case-control study (N = 99), in which infants used as control subjects had the same racial distribution as the Atlanta population in 1990 and were assumed not to have birth defects.

To assess the bias when S1 >S2, we again used data from the Atlanta Birth Defects Case Control Study from 1968 through 1980 11 evaluating the relation between maternal obesity and the risk of having a pregnancy affected by spina bifida. (The spina bifida-specific data were obtained from personal communication with Margaret L. Watkins, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999). Infants used as control subjects in this study did not have birth defects. To calculate the potential effect of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on this relation, we assumed that 26% of pregnancies with spina bifida were electively terminated and that this percentage was not associated with maternal obesity. This estimate was taken from the data of the Metropolitan Atlanta Congenital Defects Program for 1990–1991. 7 We also assumed a 17% reduction in physicians’ ability to diagnosis spina bifida prenatally among obese women. This estimate was taken from a 1988 study of a population in Michigan. 12

We calculated 95% confidence intervals (CIs) around the ORs using Cornfield’s approximation as described by Fleiss, 13 unless an expected cell value was less than 5. In the latter instance, we calculated exact CIs using a method based on an algorithm and program by Mehta et al.14 The software used was Epi Info, version 6.04b. 15

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Results

Table 1 shows the nondifferential effect (S1 =S2) of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on the relation between multivitamin use by pregnant women and their risk of having a pregnancy affected by anencephaly. 10 The 59% estimate of the rate of elective termination for anencephaly 7 was applied to the data for both women who did and those who did not take multivitamins. 1 This calculation yielded essentially the same OR (0.47 vs 0.46) regardless of whether prenatally diagnosed pregnancies are included in the case ascertainment. The 95% CI was wider when prenatally diagnosed cases were excluded.

Table 1

Table 1

Table 2 shows the differential effect (S1 <S2) of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on the relation between race and the risk of anencephaly. 7 The 64% estimate of termination among pregnancies with anencephaly was applied to the data for white women, and the 38% estimate of termination among such pregnancies was applied to the data for black women. This difference resulted in the OR being biased toward the null (1.33 vs 2.30) when prenatally diagnosed pregnancies were not included in the case ascertainment, although with a slightly narrower 95% CI.

Table 2

Table 2

Similarly, Table 3 shows the differential effect (S1 >S2) of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination on the relation between maternal obesity and spina bifida. 11 (The spina bifida-specific data were obtained from personal communication with Margaret L. Watkins, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1999). The 26% estimate of the rate of elective termination for spina bifida 7 was applied to the data for both obese and nonobese women, and the 17% estimate of the reduction in physicians’ ability to diagnosis spina bifida prenatally 12 was applied to the data for obese women. Using these estimates, we calculated that 89% of pregnancies with spina bifida among obese women were not terminated, compared with 72% among nonobese women. This difference resulted in the OR being biased away from the null (2.56 vs 2.02) when prenatally diagnosed pregnancies were not included in the case ascertainment, with a wider 95% CI.

Table 3

Table 3

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Discussion

These examples show that the exclusion of pregnancies electively terminated after prenatal diagnosis of a birth defect may have a substantial effect on the results of epidemiologic studies of these defects. Depending on how the risk factor being studied is related to prenatal diagnosis and elective termination, the study precision may be decreased or the OR may be biased either toward or away from the null. In addition, the magnitude of the bias will vary according to the population characteristics, the frequency with which prenatal diagnosis and elective termination are used, and the strength of the association of the risk factor with these procedures.

Velie and Shaw 16 have shown that, in California, women who elect to terminate a pregnancy after prenatal diagnosis of a neural tube defect differ with regard to race/ethnicity, age, education, and employment status from women who do not choose termination. Forrester and Merz 17,18 have shown that, in Hawaii, women who elect to terminate a pregnancy after prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, omphalocele, and gastroschisis differ with regard to race/ethnicity, age, urban vs rural residence, and whether they have had a previous pregnancy from women who do not choose termination. Studies in which one or more of these maternal factors are associated with the risk factor of interest may yield biased results if terminated pregnancies are not included. Indeed, Velie and Shaw 16 calculated that excluding electively terminated pregnancies from their study of neural tube defects would produce effect estimates for certain subgroups of women that were biased away from the null.

The frequency with which affected pregnancies are terminated after prenatal diagnosis varies according to the defect being studied. Termination rates after prenatal diagnosis have been estimated at more than 80% for Down syndrome, 50% for bilateral renal agenesis, 40% for omphalocele, and 25% for hypoplastic left heart in some populations. 9,17,18 Exclusion of these pregnancies would be expected to have a sizable effect on study results. In contrast, termination rates have been estimated at only 3% for tetralogy of Fallot and less than 1% for uncomplicated transposition of the great arteries, lesions for which surgical correction is well established. 2 Exclusion of these pregnancies would be expected to have little effect on most study results. Studies evaluating parental decisions to terminate pregnancies affected with birth defects indicate that severity of the anomaly and its associated prognosis are important determinants. 19–21

The situation becomes even more complex in studies in which infants with birth defects other than the one being studied are used as control subjects in an attempt to minimize recall bias in maternal interviews. 22 Such studies assume that the association between the risk factor and the various defects among control subjects, when taken in the aggregate, is different from that among the case subjects. The exclusion of prenatally diagnosed and electively terminated pregnancies from both the case and control groups would bias the OR not only by S1/ S2, but also by a corresponding factor reflecting the frequency of prenatal diagnosis and elective termination among the exposed and unexposed control pregnancies. Again, the resulting bias could be in either direction, or the several biases could potentially cancel each other out.

In an alternative scenario, prenatal diagnostic techniques may result in increased rates of diagnosis of some defects even among pregnancies that are not terminated. These additional diagnoses are often less severe manifestations of a defect than would be ascertained among symptomatic infants at birth. Obstructive renal defects are an example of such defects. 3,23,24 If the milder forms of these defects have a different etiology or different risk factors than the more severe forms, the inclusion of affected pregnancies in the case group may also influence the study results.

In summary, developments in medical technology have changed the way that birth defects are diagnosed and that affected pregnancies are managed. These developments have implications for the epidemiologic study of defects. Whenever possible, researchers should include prenatally diagnosed defects among electively terminated pregnancies in the case ascertainment to minimize the effect on their study results.

Unfortunately, information about these defects is not readily available. State-based abortion reporting generally does not include the reason for termination or whether a defect was diagnosed. 25 It has been documented that the frequency of elective termination is significantly underreported in surveys of women of reproductive age. 26 Direct access to medical records may be particularly problematic because of the sensitive nature of information about prenatal diagnosis and elective termination.

In the absence of specific data, it is imperative that researchers consider the potential for relations between prenatal diagnosis and elective termination of affected pregnancies and the risk factors and outcomes of interest, and how these relations may vary among populations, when designing studies of birth defects and reporting their findings. Only with these changes can the validity of epidemiologic studies be maintained in the face of changing technology.

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References

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Keywords:

prenatal diagnosis; elective termination; neural tube defect; epidemiologic studies; bias; odds ratio

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