Growth Hormones on Rise in Healthy Kids

Fearing stigma, looking for "designer children," parents ask for growth shots.

ByABC News
September 14, 2009, 3:37 PM

Sept. 15, 2009— -- For more than 30 years, Dr. Paul Desrosiers has treated children with growth disorders -- some of them life-threatening.

But about once a month, an ambitious parent with cash to burn asks Desrosiers, a pediatric endrocrinologist in Florida, if he would be willing to give growth hormones to a short but otherwise healthy child.

Desrosiers turns these patients away, but he says the requests still come.

Just last week, the father of a young baseball player -- a 14-year-old who was already 5 feet 6 inches tall -- expected Desrosiers to prescribe recombinant growth hormone (rGH) to add height to his budding athlete.

"He wanted to make his kid big, and he thinks he's going to walk out with the shots," said Desrosiers, director of pediatric endocrinology at Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital in Orlando. "He was willing to pay more than $45,000 a year, and didn't even bat an eyelash."

Desrosiers said he even gets requests for growth hormone from "Jolly Green Giant" families, where children are likely to be tall.

In 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of rGH for children with idiopathic -- or unexplained -- short stature, without a diagnosed metabolic hormone deficiency.

These synthetic hormones have been a boon for children who are at the bottom of the growth curve, whose predicted heights would never exceed 5 feet 3 inches for boys and 4 feet 11 inches for girls.

But with a society that is more comfortable with medicating children, the demand has opened a Pandora's box for parents of so-called "designer children" who view being short as a stumbling block to success in life.

These treatments come at a cost -- some estimate $35,000 an inch -- and when used in higher doses can shorten life-span by predisposing children to diabetes, scoliosis and cancer, according to some studies.

"We are actually making kids who are now considered healthy sick," said Susan Cohen, co-author of the new book, "Normal at Any Cost."

"The treatment of height turns out to be a cautionary tale," she told "You have to assume that parents want to do the best for their kids, but the best of parental love and the desire of a doctor to fix things is a huge industry."

According to Dr. Wilma C. Rossi, clinical associate professor for pediatrics at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, the number of parents seeking growth hormones for their short, but healthy, children is on the rise.

"Overall, tall is considered 'better' than short," Rossi told "Children are perceived to be at a disadvantage socially and athletically if they are short. Parents often worry about the child's emotional health since they are sometimes teased for being shorter and looking younger than their peers."

The average American adult male is 5 feet 9 1/2 inches tall and the average woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Height is largely determined by genetics, and hormones secreted by the pituitary gland -- a pea-size organ in the brain -- are responsible for growth.

Most research shows that while it's tough being short in grade school, the outcomes of shorter children are no different than their taller peers in adulthood.

"It seems contradictory, but growing up short in and of itself doesn't cause development issues," said Ellen Frankl, author of the 2006 memoir, "Beyond Measure."

"They are fine," she said. "It's the prejudice and stereotypes from other peers, teachers and principals."

Many experts worry that there are no long-term studies on the health effects of growth hormone on healthy children. And medical ethicists point out that treatments are most effective when a child is too young for informed consent.

Shots, usually given six times a week, are expensive -- up to $4,000 a month -- and must be given before puberty when bone plates close. And in most cases, height gains are minimal.

"If our kid has a life-threatening illness, we want to go to the doctor, but if the kid is healthy, how much risk do we want to take for only one or two inches of height?" asked Cohen.