Australian health authorities urged to subsidise foetal DNA testing

    A pregnant woman holds her stomach


Leading obstetrics researchers are calling on Australian health authorities to subsidise a new form of testing for foetal conditions, including Down syndrome.

Foetal DNA testing has been available in Australia for about two-and-a-half years.

It involves a blood test taken from a pregnant woman’s arm that tests foetal DNA circulating in her blood.

It is safer and more accurate than other methods, but it costs up to $900 and is not available through the public healthcare system.

“It’s an important new development, it should be available,” Professor Caroline de Costa of James Cook University said.

“If it’s going to be in Australia, it should be available to all pregnant women.”

Professor de Costa thinks it will inevitably be subsidised, but the process will take several years.

It takes a while to convince health departments that they should become involved and that they should subsidise this.

James Cook University Professor Caroline de Costa

“It takes a while to convince health departments that they should become involved and that they should subsidise this,” she said.

“This is the kind of thing that happened with IVF, for example.”

She and University of Western Australia Associate Professor Jan Dickinson have written an editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia calling for the test to be subsidised.

“One of problems with existing technology is that there are a certain number of false positive results,” Professor de Costa said.

“So the women at 11 to 13 weeks of pregnancy has the current testing and she gets a positive result but she’s not certain that she has a foetus or a potential child affected.

“So then she has to have more tests which do carry a risk to herself and also there’s a small but definite risk of miscarriage from those tests, and quite often she won’t actually get an answer, a definite answer, about the state of the foetus until 18 weeks or later.”

The new form of testing is not widely available.

‘Wide discussion needed’ before testing is subsidised

Professor de Costa also wants guidelines relating to the information it can reveal.

“At the moment, because it’s in private sector and has just arrived without any guidelines being developed first, it’s really in need of much community and indeed medical professional discussion,” she said.

Professor de Costa is wary the advancing technology could lead to pregnancy terminations based on gender.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that sex or gender-related abortion is occurring in Australia, but we know that it occurs other countries,” she said.

“At the moment, that information can’t be given to parents until somewhat later in pregnancy, at which stage termination of pregnancy is more challenging — it is more risky for the woman.

“But if the information is widely available at 10 weeks, there is the potential for an increase in the incidents of gender-related abortions.

“I’m not saying there is but I think it’s something that we need to think about really before the technology becomes widely available.”

Melbourne’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute offers the test for $489, which is used to fund clinical research.

“There are some women where the cost is prohibitive and they can’t access the test because of that,” Murdoch Children’s Research Institute Professor David Amor said.

“Those women need to rely on traditional forms of testing, which is still very good — particularly for low risk women — but they’re no longer the best type of test available,” he said.

“I think it’s inevitable that there will be public funding for this testing in the longer term.”