Periodic health examination, 1996 update: 1. Prenatal screening for and diagnosis of Down syndrome. Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination

CMAJ. 1996 Feb 15;154(4):465-79.


Objective: To make recommendations to physicians providing prenatal care on (1) whether prenatal screening for and diagnosis of Down syndrome (DS) is advisable and (2) alternative screening and diagnosis manoeuvres.

Options: "Triple-marker" screening of maternal serum levels of alpha-fetoprotein, human chorionic gonadotropin and unconjugated estriol; fetal ultrasonographic examination; amniocentesis; and chorionic villus sampling (CVS).

Outcomes: Accuracy of detection of DS in fetuses, and risks to the mother, including psychologic distress, and to the fetus from the screening and diagnostic interventions.

Evidence: A MEDLINE search for relevant articles published from Jan. 1, 1966, to Mar. 31, 1994, with the use of MeSH terms "Down syndrome," "prenatal diagnosis," "screening," "prevention," "amniocentesis," "chorionic villus sampling," "ultrasonography," "anxiety," "depression" and "psychological stress" and a manual search of bibliographies, recent issues of key journals and Current Contents.

Values: The evidence-based methods and values of the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination were used. A high value was placed on providing pregnant women with the opportunity to determine whether they are carrying a fetus with DS and to make choices concerning the termination of the pregnancy. The economic issues involved are complex and were not considered.

Benefits, harms and costs: Triple-marker screening identifies an estimated 58% of fetuses with DS, but it has an estimated rate of true-positive results of 0.1% and of false-positive results of 3.7% (given a risk cut-off of one chance in 190 of DS). These rates vary with maternal age and the risk cut-off chosen. Women with a known risk of having a fetus with DS (e.g., those who have had a previous child with DS) may benefit from a reduction in anxiety after confirmation that their fetus does not have DS. Screening allows women at low risk of having a child with DS to detect fetuses with the syndrome, but may cause psychologic distress if there is a false-positive screening test result. Up to 20% of women with positive results of screening tests may decline to undergo a subsequent amniocentesis. Amniocentesis and CVS are very accurate in diagnosing DS in fetuses and have a very low rate of serious complications for the mother. Amniocentesis is associated with a 1.7% rate of fetal loss when it is performed after 16 weeks' gestation, whereas the rate among controls is 0.7% (for a difference of 1%, 95% confidence interval 0.3% to 1.5%). CVS entails a greater risk of fetal loss than amniocentesis (odds ratio 1.32, 95% confidence interval 1.11 to 1.57). There is little evidence from controlled trials of significant associations between amniocentesis or CVS and neonatal morbidity or malformations; however, samples have been too small to show differences in rare outcomes. Results from some case-control studies suggest that CVS increases the risk of transverse limb deficiency. Costs were not considered because they are beyond the scope of this review.

Recommendations: There is fair evidence to offer triple-marker screening through a comprehensive program to pregnant women under 35 years of age (grade B recommendation). Women given detailed information about serum-marker screening show more satisfaction with the screening than those not given this information. There is fair evidence to offer amniocentesis or CVS to pregnant women 35 years of age and older and to women with a history of a fetus with DS or of a chromosome 21 anomaly (grade B recommendation). Information on the limitations and advantages of each procedure should be offered. Triple-marker screening may be offered as an alternative to CVS or amniocentesis to pregnant women over 35.

Validation: Recommendations concerning prenatal diagnosis are similar to those of the US Preventive Services Task Force, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, the Canadian College of Medical Geneticists and the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group. No previous specific recommendations concerning triple-maker screening exist.

Sponsors: These guidelines were developed and endorsed by the Canadian Task Force on the Periodic Health Examination, which is funded by Health Canada and the National Health Research and Development Program.

Publication types

  • Guideline
  • Practice Guideline
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Eugenic
  • Adult
  • Amniocentesis
  • Chorionic Gonadotropin / analysis
  • Down Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Estriol / analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Diagnosis*
  • Risk Factors
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal
  • alpha-Fetoproteins / analysis


  • Chorionic Gonadotropin
  • alpha-Fetoproteins
  • Estriol