21-Hydroxylase Deficiency social issues

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Overview

Social Issues

Sex assignment issues and controversies

There are no difficulties assigning appropriate sex for most infants with CAH. Genetic males have normal male genitalia and gonads and simply need hormone replacement. Most virilized females are assigned and raised as girls even if their genitalia are ambiguous or look more male than female. They have normal ovaries and uterus and potential fertility with hormone replacement and surgery. However, the dilemmas surrounding sex assignment of the most severely virilized XX infants have helped shape our understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation, and continue to be a subject of debate.

Until the 1950s, some virilized XX infants were assigned and raised as girls, and some as boys. Most developed gender identities congruent with their sex of rearing. In a few cases of male rearing, a sex reassignment was attempted in mid-childhood when newly discovered karyotyping revealed "female" chromosomes. These reassignments were rarely successful, leading John Money and other influential psychologists and physicians to conclude that gender identity was (1) unrelated to chromosomes, (2) primarily a result of social learning, and (3) could not be easily changed after infancy.

By the 1960s, CAH was well understood, karyotyping was routine, and standard management was to assign and raise all children with CAH according to their gonads and karyotypes, no matter how virilized. Markedly virilized girls were usually referred to a pediatric surgeon, often a pediatric urologist for a reconstructive vaginoplasty and clitoral reduction or recession—surgery to create or enlarge a vaginal opening and reduce the size or protrusion of the clitoris. This approach was designed to preserve fertility for both sexes and remains the standard management, but two aspects of this management have been challenged: assignment of completely virilized genetic females and the value and age of corrective surgery.

The first questions about assignment were raised in the early 1980s when Money and others reported an unexpectedly high rate of failure to achieve normal adult sexual relationships (i.e., heterosexual orientation, marriage, and children) in grown women with CAH (though all had female gender identities). However, the sample was small, and results seemed interpretable in many ways: selection bias, early hormone effects on orientation, sexual dysfunction created by residual body abnormalities, or by the genital surgery itself. From a perspective two decades later, the report was one of the first pieces of evidence that the standard management paradigm was not always producing hoped-for outcomes.

Despite these concerns, no significant opposition to standard management arose until the mid-1990s, when a confluence of evidence and opinion from several sources led to a re-examination of outcomes. Several intersex support and advocacy groups (e.g., Intersex Society of North America) began to publicly criticize infant genital surgery based on unsatisfactory outcomes of some adults who had been operated on as infants. Their complaints were that they had reduced ability to enjoy sexual relations or that they resented not having had the choice of gender assignment or surgical reconstruction left until they were old enough to participate. (See History of intersex surgery.)

In 1997, influential articles by Reiner, Diamond, and Sigmundson advocated consideration of (1) male sex assignment in the unambiguously male XX infants (most of whom are considered male until the CAH is recognized at 1-2 weeks of age), and (2) delaying reconstructive surgery until the patient is old enough to participate in the decision. (See Ambiguous genitalia and Intersex for more on this debate, as well as complete citations.)

Although the standard management approach remains "standard", more time and consideration are being given in many cases to explaining alternatives to parents and a small number of XX children with unambiguously male external genitalia are again being raised as boys.

Stress coverage, crisis prevention, parental education

Even after diagnosis and initiation of treatment, a small percentage of children and adults with infancy or childhood onset CAH die of adrenal crisis. Deaths from this are entirely avoidable if the child and his family understand that the daily glucocorticoids cannot be allowed to be interrupted by an illness. When a person is well, missing a dose, or even several doses, may produce little in the way of immediate symptoms. However, our glucocorticoid needs are increased during illness and stress, and missed doses during an illness such as the "flu" (or viral gastroenteritis) can lead within hours to reduced blood pressure, shock, and death.

To prevent this, all persons taking replacement glucocorticoids are taught to increase their doses in the event of illness, surgery, severe injury, or severe exhaustion. More importantly, they are taught that vomiting warrants an injection within hours of hydrocortisone (e.g., SoluCortef) or other glucocorticoid. This recommendation applies to both children and adults. Because young children are more susceptible to vomiting illnesses than adults, pediatric endocrinologists usually teach parents how to give hydrocortisone injections.

As an additional precaution, persons with adrenal insufficiency are advised to wear a medical identification tag or carry a wallet card to alert those who may be providing emergency medical care of the urgent need for glucocorticoids.

For an excellent example of parent education materials for CAH, see the booklet prepared by the Johns Hopkins Pediatric Endocrine Service.

Psychosexual development and issues

Nearly all mammals display sex-dimorphic reproductive and sexual behavior (e.g., lordosis and mounting in rodents). Much research has made it clear that prenatal and early postnatal androgens play a role in the differentiation of most mammalian brains. Experimental manipulation of androgen levels in utero or shortly after birth can alter adult reproductive behavior.

Girls and women with CAH constitute the majority of genetic females with normal internal reproductive hormones who have been exposed to male levels of testosterone throughout their prenatal lives. Milder degrees of continuing androgen exposure continue throughout childhood and adolescence due to the imperfections of current glucocorticoid treatment for CAH. The psychosexual development of these girls and women has been analyzed as evidence of the role of androgens in human sex-dimorphic behaviors.

Girls with CAH have repeatedly been reported to spend more time with "sex-atypical" toys and "rough-and-tumble" play than unaffected sisters. These differences continue into adolescent, as expressed in social behaviors, leisure activities, and career interests. Interest in babies and becoming mothers is significantly lower by most measures.

Cognitive effects are less clear and reports have been contradictory. Two studies reported spatial abilities above the average for sisters and for girls in general. Other evidence in males with and without androgen deficiencies suggest that androgens may play a role in these aptitudes.

However, gender identity of girls and women with CAH is nearly always unequivocally female. Sexual orientation is more mixed, though the majority are heterosexual. In one study, 27% of women with CAH were rated as bisexual in their orientations. Abnormalities of body image due to the effects of the disease likely play a role in the sexual development of these women, and one cannot conclude that the androgens are the major determinant of their erotic interests.

References


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