AN alarming number of pregnant women in Ireland are not being screened for foetal abnormalities.
Thirteen of the country's 20 maternity units were found to be in breach of international guidelines.
A study carried out by Dublin's National Maternity Hospital said one of the reasons is a shortage of specialist sonographers.
These medical staff provide ultrasonic imaging devices and scans of unborn babies.
Another reason for the lack of screening in Ireland is the ban on terminations for women who discover they have unviable pregnancies.
Congenital heart disease and spina bifida are among the birth defects which can be diagnosed with the help of foetal anomaly scans.
These are available to women in England and a range of other countries at between 18 and 20 weeks of pregnancy.
An estimated 1,500 cases of fatal foetal diagnoses are reported annually in this country.
However, our latest abortion legislation does not allow for a pregnancy termination in instances where the foetus has no prospect of survival outside the womb.
The result is that eight out of every 10 women affected travel abroad for treatment.
The survey showed only seven maternity units in Ireland offered scans to all relevant patients – while nine offered the service to a certain category of mothers.
The belief among 19 of the units surveyed is that a minimum of two scans should be offered to all women who want to avail of this service.
It is understood the HSE is now drafting a series of guidelines which will cover the provision of routine ultrasounds.
Peter McParland, director of foetal medicine at the National Maternity Hospital said the unavailability of pregnancy termination in Ireland has meant obstetric practice here "has been less proactive'' in identifying major foetal abnormalities.
He said the more ultrasounds that are provided the more abnormalities that are identified – which can create more dilemmas for the parents involved.
It has also emerged that the shortage of trained sonographers is worsened by the fact that midwives and nurses with the relevant skills are moving into the private sector, where pay levels can by higher.
It is understood the HSE intends to review the operation of some of these clinics, to see if there is a conflict of interest involving staff who work for mainstream hospitals, and who also provide this service on a private basis.