Iceland Close To Eradicating Down Syndrome As Prenatal Screening Tests Detect Chromosome Abnormality During Pregnancy
Iceland has drastically reduced the number of children born with Down syndrome. The country only has one or two children born with the condition per year. In comparison, the number of babies with Down syndrome born in the United States is about 6,000 per year.
The reduction has something to do with prenatal screening tests that can determine the likelihood the child an expectant mother carries would be born with Down syndrome. Since Iceland introduced prenatal screening tests in the early 2000s, most women who received a positive test for Down syndrome decided to terminate their pregnancy.
Although the tests are optional, the government wants all pregnant women to be informed about the availability of these screening tests. The test, known as Combination Test, uses ultrasound, blood test and the age of the mother to determine the likelihood of the fetus to have chromosome abnormality, which commonly results in Down syndrome.
Between 80 and 85 percent of pregnant women opt to take the prenatal screening test. Of those who discover they are at high risk of carrying a child with Down syndrome, nearly 100 percent opt for an abortion.
Iceland allows abortion after 16 weeks provided the fetus has a deformity and this category includes Down syndrome.
"We don't look at abortion as a murder. We look at it as a thing that we ended. We ended a possible life that may have had a huge complication... preventing suffering for the child and for the family," said Helga Sol Olafsdottir, from the Landspitali University Hospital, who counsels expectant mothers whose unborn child is at high risk of chromosomal abnormality.
Despite the availability of tests and an option to terminate pregnancy, babies with Down syndrome are still being born in the country. Hulda Hjartardottir, Landspitali University Hospital's head of Prenatal Diagnosis Unit, explained that some of these cases were found low risk in the screening tests.
Down syndrome is characterized by developmental issues and distinctive facial issues. People with Down syndrome are at higher risk of suffering from hearing and vision problems, heart disorders, thyroid problems and recurrent infections. Many people with the condition still live full healthy lives though.
"The people I've met who have Down's syndrome are able to walk, talk, dress themselves, and feed themselves. A lot of them lead an almost normal life," said Richard Davis, whose daughter, Victoria, was born with Down syndrome.
"She has lots of interests: she goes to ballet and gymnastics, and used to go trampolining. She also swims because that helps build up her muscles. People with Down's syndrome have low muscle tone."