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Friday, 2 July, 1999, 14:06 GMT 15:06 UK
Vegetarian diet linked to genital defects
Baby
A vegetarian diet may put babies at risk
by BBC Bristol health correspondent Matthew Hill

A vegetarian diet could be responsible for genital defects in baby boys, according to BBC-funded research carried out by scientists in Bristol.

Researchers found that boys born to vegetarian mums are five times more likely to suffer from hypospadias, a condition that effects the male urethra.

The urethra is the tube that carries the urine from the bladder to an external opening. 

In males, the urethra should open at the tip of the penis. If the urethra opens below the tip of the penis, this is called hypospadias.

There are various grades of hypospadias depending on how far down the shaft of the penis the urethral opening is located.

The only way to correct this is with surgery, which is usually performed at one to two years of age.

Children with hypospadias should never be circumsized as the foreskin may be used to repair the hypospadias.

Hypospadias is very painful, often combined with undescended testicles and could lead to testicular cancer.

The number of cases of hypospadias has doubled in the past 30 years.

The increase mirrors an increase in other problems with the male reproductive system such as low sperm count, undescended testicles and testicular cancer.

The research was carried out by Bristol University's "Children of the 90s" Project which is investigating the health of 14,000 children born at the start of this decade.

The researchers found 51 boys suffering from hypospadias.

Pesticides implicated

Vegetables
The benefits of a vegetarian diet have been called into question
They believe that a vegetarian diet alone is unlikely to cause hypospadias.

But they think vegetarians are probably eating more of something that is to blame - soya is a suspect.

According to the researchers, the defect may be caused by crop pesticides or naturally occurring chemicals called phytoestrogens.

Phytoestrogens are generally thought to be behind hormonal imbalances leading to defects.

The researchers say that more investigations are needed before the link can be properly established.

Project leader Professor Jean Golding says: "We know that vegetables are good for all sorts of reasons and we are certainly not advocating that people stop eating vegetables.

"We think, however, that such studies may help us find answers to this distressing condition.

"It is potentially disastrous for the human race, and it is important that it is addressed early."

Professor Golding said the majority of mothers of affected boys were meat-eaters, but proportionately vegetarian mothers were at greater risk of producing a boy with the condition.

Kym Godier, 32, of Wells, Somerset, began a parents' national support group after her son Thomas was born with the hypospadias defect.

Thomas, now three, had corrective surgery and is "fine", says his mother.

She said: "I was shocked and confused when I heard of this condition as there seemed no-one to turn to for explanation.

"I was surprised to hear that vegetarians were more at risk as you generally think of them leading a healthier lifestyle."

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