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Washington (dpa) - Women could be screened much earlier in pregnancy - by the 12th week - to determine if the fetus has Down Syndrome, according to research published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The new first-trimester screening, which involved blood and ultrasound tests, identified 87 per cent of Down Syndrome fetuses in a study of 38,167 pregnant women, according to a story in The Washington Post.
"This is a big deal for women," Fergal Malone of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, who led the study, told the Post.
Down Syndrome is a genetic abnormality that produces distinctive physical features, developmental problems and physical risks that can shorten a child's life. Women are at high risk either because of family history or increased age at time of conception.
Currently, women must wait until the 16th to 20th week of pregnancy for blood tests and amniocentesis to determine if the fetus has the syndrome.
The two tests in the study can be done before the 12th week of pregnancy, when a woman can choose to have a safe abortion or use the additional time to prepare for the birth of a child with special needs.
The new approach uses a blood test to measure certain protein levels and for a hormone known as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), and an ultrasound to measure the thickness of the skin at the back of the fetus's neck, the Post reported.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The study provoked protests from anti-abortion groups and advocates for the disabled, who raised questions about a study that could lead to more abortions done to select out disabled fetuses.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists planned to update its advice to members based on the study, the Post reported.
Copyright 2005 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH