Down's syndrome occurs when a person has three, rather than two copies of chromosome 21; or the specific area of chromosome 21 implicated in causing Down's syndrome. It is the commonest congenital cause of mental disability and also leads to numerous metabolic and structural problems. It can be life-threatening, or lead to considerable ill health, although some individuals have only mild problems and can lead relatively normal lives. Having a baby with Down’s syndrome is likely to have a significant impact on family life.
Non-invasive screening based on biochemical analysis of maternal serum or urine, or fetal ultrasound measurements, allows estimates of the risk of a pregnancy being affected and provides information to guide decisions about definitive testing.
Before agreeing to screening tests, parents need to be fully informed about the risks, benefits and possible consequences of such a test. This includes subsequent choices for further tests they may face, and the implications of both false positive and false negative screening tests (i.e. invasive diagnostic testing, and the possibility that a miscarried fetus may be chromosomally normal). The decisions that may be faced by expectant parents inevitably engender a high level of anxiety at all stages of the screening process, and the outcomes of screening can be associated with considerable physical and psychological morbidity. No screening test can predict the severity of problems a person with Down's syndrome will have.