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Second Trimester Prenatal Screening Tests

Second trimester prenatal screening may include several blood tests, called multiple markers. These markers provide information about a woman's risk of having a baby with certain genetic conditions or birth defects. Screening is usually performed by taking a sample of the mother's blood between the 15th and 20th weeks of pregnancy (16th to 18th is ideal). The multiple markers include:

  • Alpha-fetoprotein screening (AFP). A blood test that measures the level of alpha-fetoprotein in the mothers' blood during pregnancy. AFP is a protein normally produced by the fetal liver and is present in the fluid surrounding the fetus (amniotic fluid), and crosses the placenta into the mother's blood. The AFP blood test is also called MSAFP (maternal serum AFP).

    Abnormal levels of AFP may signal the following:

    • Open neural tube defects (ONTD), such as spina bifida

    • Down syndrome

    • Other chromosomal abnormalities

    • Defects in the abdominal wall of the fetus

    • Twins. More than one fetus is making the protein

    • A miscalculated due date, as the levels vary throughout pregnancy

  • hCG. Human chorionic gonadotropin hormone (a hormone produced by the placenta).

  • Estriol. A hormone produced by the placenta.

  • Inhibin. A hormone produced by the placenta.

Abnormal test results of AFP and other markers may indicate the need for additional testing. Usually an ultrasound is performed to confirm the dates of the pregnancy and to look at the fetal spine and other body parts for defects. An amniocentesis may be needed for accurate diagnosis.

Multiple marker screening is not diagnostic. This means it is not 100 percent accurate, and is only a screening test to determine who in the population should be offered additional testing for their pregnancy. There can be false-positive results--indicating a problem when the fetus is actually healthy or false negative results--indicating a normal result when the fetus actually does have a health problem.

When a woman has both first and second trimester screening tests performed, the ability of the tests to detect an abnormality is greater than using just one screening independently. Most cases of Down syndrome can be detected when both first and second trimester screening are used.