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Infertility treatable, but can be risky

By Eleni Berger

(CNN) - The birth of septuplets at Georgetown University Medical Center is a reminder of the potency of modern fertility treatments -- and their potential risk.

About 6.1 million people in the United States are infertile, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The condition is generally diagnosed when a couple has been unable to achieve a pregnancy after a year of unprotected intercourse.

Many factors can account for infertility. About one-third of cases are attributed to problems with the woman's reproductive system, such as endometriosis, blocked fallopian tubes or ovulation irregularities. Another third are related to disorders of the male reproductive system, such as a low sperm count, low motility of sperm, or blocked sperm ducts.

The final third of fertility concerns are attributed to problems with both partners. In some cases, no cause for infertility can be determined.

RESOLVE  The National Infertility Association

Chat transcript:  In-vitro fertilization and multiple-birth gestation

One of the most common treatments for infertility is therapy with drugs such as clomiphene (a pill) or human menopausal gonadotropin (hMG -- administered as a shot) that induce ovulation.

Women on the medication must be monitored carefully with ultrasound and blood tests to prevent too many eggs from releasing at once, which could result in a multiple pregnancy. This occurs in about 20 percent of women who get pregnant through intercourse or artificial insemination while on drug therapy, according to RESOLVE, The National Infertility Association.

A multiple pregnancy can also result from in vitro fertilization, a fertility treatment in which egg and sperm are combined outside the body to form an embryo, then implanted in the uterus. Doctors may create and implant multiple embryos to increase the chances of achieving a successful pregnancy.

A multiple pregnancy poses many risks. The mother may have a greater chance of developing complications such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, or premature labor, according to RESOLVE. The babies she carries have a greater risk of being born prematurely or with a low birth weight, and may have developmental or physical disabilities.

Some couples who conceive a multiple pregnancy choose to abort some of the fetuses. This can reduce the risk to the mother and provide the remaining fetus or fetuses a better chance of surviving the pregnancy. Other couples have moral objections to the procedure and choose to carry all the fetuses.

• The American Infertility Association
• American Society for Reproductive Medicine
• A Patient's Guide to Overcoming Infertility

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