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Mad Cow Disease and Fertility Treatments

Our local organic market sells a t-shirt that reads: there is no such thing as Mad Tofu Disease.  And while I’ll admit that I snickered when I first saw it, it’s also obnoxious.  It’s smug.

And yet, I have to admit that one of the benefits of being a vegetarian is that I always had this peace with my food chain.  It never weighed on my conscience that an animal gave up its life so I could continue mine.  I don’t have to think about slaughterhouse conditions.  And when I was in Europe during the height of the Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) fears, I breathed easy knowing that I never had to worry about consuming tainted meat.

Which is why it was all the more upsetting when I saw the report in the CBC News that “Brain-wasting prions found in fertility hormone.”  In other words,

Certain fertility hormones could theoretically put women at risk of developing brain-wasting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

At this point, the information is theoretical — there have been no cases reported of a woman developing from fertility treatments Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of BSE or Mad Cow Disease.  The report is meant to be proactive — to point out possible problems before they develop into actual transmissions.

And the risk is minimal.  As the articles state: “Given that CJD rates are low to start with — roughly one in 10,000 people suffer from the disease — the risk of transmission will likely remain low, even with the new finding.”

And let’s be realistic — CJD is probably the least of my medical problems based on what I’ve injected into me.  Beyond the possibility of directly related medical complications such as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome (OHSS), there are constant studies being done to see if fertility treatments contribute to an increased risk of breast, ovarian, or uterine cancers.

Yet why did this report give me pause?  Perhaps it’s because for me it signals just how much we don’t know about the solutions we create.  And please don’t get me wrong — I am grateful for those solutions and this is probably not going to stop me from using them again — but it does get to the heart of the matter.  That nothing is without risk.  And we need to make our decisions knowing that even if we don’t know the risks concretely, they’re out there and we always need to weigh in that x-factor when we decide to treat a problem.

And beyond that, it pushed me out of my nice, can’t-touch-me bubble; that one I was floating on by being a vegetarian.  Though this isn’t the first time that has happened.  A while back, I was examining a syringe of Lovenox and saw the words “porcine intestinal mucosa.”  Whoa… did that mean what I thought it meant?  Was Lovenox made from the intestinal mucous of a pig?  Er… that would be correct.

I went through a big mental block with that one — as a kosher vegetarian, where did injecting pig mucous into me fall?  Would I do it, albeit squeamishly for the sake of maintaining a pregnancy?  Would I draw the line at pig mucous?

I have to admit that I have an ignorance-is-bliss policy with medication.  While I scour the labels of food products with a fine-tooth comb for animal by-products, I don’t give my medications the same scrutiny.  Perhaps it is because what we eat is a choice and medication often isn’t.  While there may be a completely vegan alternative, many times there isn’t something as effective or trying to find it is next to impossible.

I wish I didn’t know about the manufacturing of Lovenox (and perhaps you have deep regrets over reading this post).  If I didn’t, it wouldn’t be an issue — I’d inject it with my eyes of the prize, completely ignorant of its origins.  But now that I know it, it becomes a question of ethics, a question of need.  I may still make the same decision as I would if I didn’t know the origins, but that decision feels different.

And the same can be said for this new study on the possible risk of CJD in urine-based fertility drugs. (As if the origins of these drugs don’t give enough pause.  Hmmm… which makes me throw-up in my mouth more?  Urine or pig mucous?)  If I didn’t know about the study, I would inject without another thought.  Knowing about the study, I will still probably inject, but it’s with a heavier hand if not a heavier heart.

How does this study (or knowing the origins of your drugs) affect your decision-making with fertility treatments?

For vegetarians and vegans, where do you fall on knowingly using animal by-products in medications or surgical procedures?

Cross-posted with BlogHer.


1 manymanymoons3433 { 03.28.11 at 11:24 am }

I have been a partial vegetarian for nearly 20 years (I eat fish and chicken…damn those McDonalds Chicken McNuggets for pulling me back in after 8 years as a total vegetarian). I think I feel exactly the same as you. I look for obvious situations where meat may be inserted into my food, but when it comes to checking the labels of drugs I think I fall into the “don’t ask don’t tell category”. For me the stand I take against eating red meat and pork is more of a personal boundary situation. I like knowing that I stuck with something. Like you, once I have the info I just can’t “un-know” it and it’s hard to get past.

2 HereWeGoAJen { 03.28.11 at 11:35 am }

You know, I am banned from giving blood for the rest of my life (or at least those are the current regulations) because I lived in England before and during the Mad Cow thing.

3 Julie { 03.28.11 at 11:36 am }

My kid got surfactant when he needed it, and I got insulin, ditto. Me, I’m cool with the pigs.

4 Sharon { 03.28.11 at 11:36 am }

I am not a vegetarian, so maybe I view this issue a little differently.

I remember thinking it was mildly icky when I learned that Follistim was made from hamster ovary cells. Still, knowing this didn’t stop me from using it when I needed it.

I doubt this type of information would ever stop me from using a drug I really needed. As you correctly observe, there is often no vegan choice, and if you need the treatment, you need it.

5 loribeth { 03.28.11 at 11:58 am }

I’m not a vegetarian, & the use of animal products in fertility drugs doesn’t give me pause from that general perspective. Squirmwise, maybe a bit. When I was in high school, one of my best friends’ parents ran a farm that produced pregnant mare urine used in birth control pills. I had no idea, & had to try to block that one from my mind when I eventually went on the pill!

I am almost 10 years past my last fertility treatments, & my files would not be as thick or complex as some fertility patients. I only took Puregon for one IUI cycle cycle, Gonal-F for two, & had HCG shots for all three. Concerns about what these drugs were doing to my body were one reason why we decided to stop when we did. Of course, I was thinking more in terms of cancer (not to mention the panic attacks I was having).

But the report about possible CJD links is disturbing, even if they’re pretty remote. It does bring home the fact that there is so much we don’t know about infertility, its causes & treatments. Also, just how very new all this science is. Louise Brown, the first baby born from IVF, is just 32-33 years old. That’s not a very long time in the grand scheme of things. Even since we stopped treatment, I can see the changes that have take place. Donor eggs & surrogacy, for example, were nowhere near as commonly considered or used as they are today.

6 Another Dreamer { 03.28.11 at 12:19 pm }

I just try not to think about my medication anymore. Although, when I was on Bravelle I had a good laugh about how it was purified urine from post-menopausal women. Like, haha if I don’t laugh I may cry. I did now know that about Lovenox :/

7 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 03.28.11 at 12:31 pm }

As a vegetarian, I’ve also closed my eyes and pretended I didn’t know where the drugs came from. The urine ones don’t trouble me ethically (gross as they may be) since I’ve injected both human and animal urine, and the mares presumably live happy lives while their pee is being collected. The ones that require killing animals are ethically troubling but I didn’t have clear alternatives. I also have taken meds in gelatin capsules even though I wouldn’t eat gelatin as food. My usual rules don’t apply when it comes to medical science, esp. baby-making which was so close to impossible for me already that I couldn’t afford to make it more difficult by eliminating many of the medications.

I was glad that we were never told to do the hamster test. That one always seemed more direct and personal, one individual hamster giving her life to test DH’s sperm.

8 marilyn { 03.28.11 at 1:05 pm }

this is really interesting, but very informative. I just want to say, i think I would put anything in my body to get pregnant. I can understand the real dilemma if you are a vegetarian though. That would be hard. The fear of these things cancers and research that are not 100% is less than the desperate need to have child. As for the vegetarian lifestyle, I think my taste is going more towards vegetarian. I just do not like meat anymore. It is a strange thing for me.

9 Katie { 03.28.11 at 1:07 pm }

I’m not a vegetarian (though I used to be), but I did think a lot about what I was putting into my body when we were going through fertility treatments. I still think a lot about the medications I’m taking to suppress my reproductive system. It scared me before, knowing my mom developed breast cancer after hormone replacement therapy, but it put me over the edge when I developed a tumor in my breast after two medicated cycles. There’s no way to tell if it was related to the drugs. However, it made me step back when it came time to decide whether I wanted to choose IVF or adoption. Could I, or would I, put my body through that again? No. I can’t. I didn’t realize it until months later, but having that scare largely shaped our choice to pursue adoption. (Let me emphasize that I’m in no way saying fertility treatments cause tumors. We’ve already established my body is a freak of nature.)

If I were still going through treatment, this latest report would make me think twice.

10 a { 03.28.11 at 3:19 pm }

The one thing I got out of science classes (and really, there should have been much more, seeing as I have a degree in Biochemistry!) is that (not necessarily true) statement “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or basically, I’ve been pretty aware that there are always consequences. Sometimes they might be so mild as to be unnoticeable. Sometimes they might be huge. But they always exist. So you spin the wheel and take your chances (or you can research the hell out of things and make informed decisions, but where’s the fun in that?).

BTW, plants are living entities who communicate. Why are you discriminating against them? 😉

11 Hope { 03.28.11 at 3:30 pm }

I’m a former vegetarian. I chose to start eating poultry because of my western diagnosis insulin resistance and my TCM diagnosis of blood deficiency. The ethics of it became a moot point to me when my blood deficiency showed dramatic improvement within two weeks of me incorporating significant amounts of animal protein into my diet. I am very careful, though, about the sources of animal food that I buy. But I see it as a very small price to pay for increased fertility, compared to many other treatments and medications out there.

As to medications derived from animal products, I just let it go and forgot about it. I remember reading porcine intestinal mucosa and thinking, briefly that it came from porcupines, before I remembered that porcine means pig, but that’s about as far as I got.

My current position is that ethics are fine and good, but they can also be too black and white and life is full of shades of gray. When it comes to my health, right now, my ethics have to take a back seat and re-form around the foods and medicine that will improve my health and my chance of carrying to term.

12 Annie { 03.28.11 at 3:34 pm }

There are a lot of really yucky things that go into making the medications we use! I use Lovenox daily and actually posted about its origins: http://www.cradlesandgraves.com/2010/11/whole-lotta-lovenox.html . There’s even a picture – gross! I like to find out what I’m putting into myself, even though it can be disturbing.

13 Sushigirl { 03.28.11 at 4:04 pm }

I know there are risks with fertility drug, and I’ve just been through one of the more hair raising outcomes of fertility treatment in that I had emergency surgery to get an EP and a tube removed. But then there are increased risks of cancer if I never get pregnant, and increased risks of dying from some sort of pregnancy-related thing if I do.

And then, there’s all the other non-fertility related risks we run from everyday things like driving, flying, crossing the road etc etc. I just don’t let any of it worry me right now!

14 la loca { 03.28.11 at 4:41 pm }

This article is very interesting. I agree with some of you and I will use anything in order to get pregnant.
On the other hand, when I tried to donate my eggs a few months ago, the RE said that they couldn’t accept me as a donor because I lived in Spain when the mad cow disease was going on. The CDA did.not allow donors that could have been exposed to it. I have to be a known donor, versus an anonymous one, to donate at their clinic…which is close to impossible. Most people want to keep the relationship anonymous. I must say that my RE said that it was a pity because I would be the perfect donor.
Oh well…

15 La loca { 03.28.11 at 5:19 pm }

Oops, I meant the FDA, not CDA.

16 Mic @ IF Crossroads { 03.28.11 at 5:58 pm }

As always, your posts are so timely. My husband and I just had this very conversation no less than an hour ago while I was making dinner. And this was before I had read this post. Bizzare.
Coming from someone who has just had a diagnosis of Hashimotos, an emergency gallbladder removal and a Pap come back with pre-cancerous cells all within the last 2 weeks I can tell you that the drugs that I’ve injected into my body have been weighing heavily on my mind.
But with all of that said, even if I knew that IVF was the root cause for all 3 of these occurrences (and it’s likely that it is at least in terms of my thyroid) I would still do it all over again for K. In a minute. In a New York minute.

17 Nicole { 03.28.11 at 7:14 pm }

Gosh I wish I could UNKNOW that about lovenox now…. especially since I used it for 35 weeks and hope to use it again.

I knew I didn’t like the urine based drugs. Gimme some follistim! I suppose it is best not to think too hard about these things.

18 Kristin { 03.28.11 at 8:34 pm }

Even if I had realized where lovenox came from, I would have used it. It was only because of lovenox that I have Gabriel.

19 Alexicographer { 03.28.11 at 9:58 pm }

This reminds me a bit about a conversation I had with my mother in which she told me about watching a TV show (PBS, surely, as that’s all she watches) about conditions in the meat-packing industry and had as a result decided to become a vegetarian, not because of concerns about the treatment of the animals (not that she was happy about those) but rather of the workers. Clearly, yes, they are terrible, but as I pointed out to her, it’s not like veggie/fruit agriculture is positively known for its labor conditions.

She did become a vegetarian anyway, except that (ahem) when she comes over to my house on a morning when there’s bacon cooked, well …

We both try to eat humanely raised and processed/prepared produce (and meats, when applicable), though she does better than I do on this front.

In terms of the IVF stuff, to be honest I worry more about the questions being raised of how being conceived and growing in vitro for the first several days can affect epigenetics, as compared to being conceived and developing 100% in vivo. Absent IVF I wouldn’t have my son to worry about in this regard, so …

20 Amanda { 03.28.11 at 10:17 pm }

It’s amazing where some of this stuff comes from… pigs, horses, old Italian nuns, hamsters! Did you know Ovidrel synthetic HCG is made from hamster eggs? Ovidrel can be injected sub-q and regular old HCG has to be mixed and injected IM. I think I’d rather anti-up to the pain of IM than inject something made from hamster eggs. As a vegetarian I’d prefer to use vegetarian drug, but I know that some pills I take are made from fish gelatin and I’m ok with that is it’s necessary.

21 Sara { 03.28.11 at 11:05 pm }

I just ran to read the original article. It was about hcg mainly, which is available in synthetic form (although according to Amanda–hamsters are killed in the making of it–ugh–why did it have to be hamsters and not cobras or spiders?). I’m a vegetarian (for over 20 years now), but aside from the ick factor, I’m not that worked up about where my drugs come from. There is a different between need and want, and if I need the drug, then the hamster is just going to have to cough up the eggs. Sorry hamster ;-(.

22 What IF? { 03.28.11 at 11:24 pm }

Extremely informative post, thank you. I guess I’m thankful that this information found its way to me after cycling instead of before or during a cycle as I might have changed my mind about IVF altogether. Now, well, too late!

23 mash { 03.29.11 at 9:13 am }

Love this post, it sums up so much that I battle with in life. I’m a “flexitarian” meaning I eat vegetarian food 80% of the time, and a little bit of fish or chicken once a week. I was a vegetarian though and loved that feeling of the clean conscience. Probably the biggest thing holding me back from fertility treatment is exactly what you mention here – the terrible things that go into the drugs. How about the genetically modified hormone which comes from the ovaries of completely innocent hamsters…. I was devastated to hear this, since I was a very devoted hamster mommy in my youth. That more hamsters would have to die for me to become a real mommy, to this day I can’t reconcile it.

And dig a little deeper. Have a look at almost any moisturising product’s ingredients for the magical “urea” – a substance which comes from the urine of mammals, usually pigs. And you wipe it on your FACE!

You’ll be amazed at the stuff that goes into our stuff!

24 Battynurse { 03.29.11 at 2:03 pm }

I tend to be a fan of the ignorance is bliss in most all situations. Especially things like meat since I still really like mine I just can’t think of it cute and with a name. And I don’t want to know how any of my food is processed, medications are made, or much of anything else is made. Yup, call me an ostrich. Not always the best attitude but it works for me.
That said my theory or wish or whatever for the last several years is that I want a baby and a hysterectomy as I don’t trust my ovaries to not seek revenge for trying to force them into submission. The boobs worry me too but not quite as much as the ovaries.

25 aisha { 03.29.11 at 10:23 pm }

I don’t have much to contribute but thanks for the food for thought- I had nver heard of this study- and appreciate it being brought to my attention.

26 magpie { 03.30.11 at 2:28 pm }

Pig mucus, huh? That’s a new one.

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