Page last updated at 20:32 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Safety of souvenir ultrasound baby scans in question

3D ultrasound scan
Companies offer 3D scans that show the babies' features in detail

Parents-to-be should weigh the possible risks of going for non-essential scans purely to get keepsake pictures of their unborn babies, experts conclude.

Although ultrasound scans to check the baby's health are entirely justifiable and safe, the Health Protection Agency is concerned about "boutique" scanning.

Its independent advisory board looked at the available evidence for any possible health ill effects.

It said more research is needed to determine the long-term consequences.

There have been some unconfirmed reports suggesting possible neurological effects on the unborn child.

People should continue using ultrasound for medical purposes
Justin McCracken of the HPA

The concern is that with souvenir scans the beam of ultrasound stays static over the baby's head for longer in order to get a sharp mug shot.

Some studies have linked ultrasound scans to higher rates of left-handedness in baby boys.

Safety unproven

The report by the HPA's Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) found no evidence to suggest that routine ultrasound scans used for antenatal checks in hospitals negatively affected the health of babies.

But the evidence surrounding commercial ultrasound use was too patchy to make a judgement.

And there was little evidence about whether there are any longer-term effects.

Chairman of the report, Professor Anthony Swerdlow, said: "Ultrasound has been widely used in medical practice for 50 years, and there is no established evidence of specific hazards from diagnostic exposures.

"However, in the light of the widespread use of ultrasound in medical practice, its increasing commercial use for 'souvenir' foetal imaging, and the unconfirmed indications of possible neurological effects on the foetus, there is a need for further research on whether there are any long-term adverse effects of diagnostic ultrasound."

Justin McCracken of the HPA said: "Overall, there is a track record of safety with diagnostic use of ultrasound, so people should continue using ultrasound for medical purposes.

"However, there are some uncertainties that need to be clarified through additional research."

The British Medical Ultrasound Society agreed with the HPA findings.

They urged all patients who had diagnostic scans booked to keep their scheduled appointments as these ultrasound scans have been arranged for a clinical purpose.

They said it was also fine to take home keepsake pictures from these scans - but advised parents against seeking scans solely for the purpose of getting a "nice snapshot for the baby book".

A spokesperson said the Department of Health welcomed the AGNIR report and its recommendations for research, adding: "We have taken account of this in a recent review of our radiation protection research strategy."

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