Thousands of British women could miss their last chance of becoming a mother, as IVF treatment centres close down this week due to the coronavirus lockdown.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) ruled that NHS and private clinics will stop treating women undergoing IVF treatment from Wednesday, April 15.
Patients who are in the middle of an IVF cycle will have their treatment suspended indefinitely, according to HFEA, the government body that regulates IVF clinics in the UK.
All new treatments have already been banned for safety reasons relating to coronavirus.
Many of the 68,000 women who choose to have IVF every year in the UK are in their late 30 or early 40s and have little time to delay.
There are now fears that women who were due to undergo IVF will be too old to do so by the time lockdown lifts, which is yet to be determined.
During in vitro fertilisation (IVF), an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory. IVF helps people with fertility problems have a baby. Private clinics typically refuse to treat women aged 45 and over, while NHS clinical commissioning groups do not generally allow women a second round of IVF after they turn 40
‘You can’t rewind your biological clock,’ Dr Catherine Hill from the UK-based reproductive research charity Progress Educational Trust, told the Guardian.
WHAT IS IVF?
In vitro fertilisation (IVF) is a technique to help people with fertility problems have a baby.
It is the process of sperm fertilising an egg outside the body.
During IVF, an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory.
The fertilised egg, called an embryo, is then returned to the woman’s womb to grow and develop.
It can be carried out using your eggs and your partner’s sperm, or eggs and sperm from donors.
‘Time is of the essence when it comes to fertility treatment.
‘For some people, this shutdown means they may never become parents.
‘This was going to be their last chance and they’re not able to have it – that is deeply distressing and traumatising.’
IVF success rates go from 23 per cent for women aged between 35 to 37, down to 15 per cent for women aged 38 to 39 and just 9 per cent for women aged 40 to 42, according to the NHS.
Private clinics typically refuse to treat women aged 45 and over, while NHS clinical commissioning groups do not generally allow women a second round of IVF after they turn 40.
HFEA had already said in a statement last month that it had been advised by scientists and experts to halt IVF treatments over the course of three weeks, until April 13.
HFEA said stopping IVF in clinics ‘is the only responsible course of action for the fertility sector and patients at this tough time’
‘Their advice is that clinics should plan to stop treatments over the next three weeks, allowing patients to complete any cycle they have started,’ it said at the time.
‘We have written to all UK licensed clinics to tell them that we expect them to follow this guidance.
‘I recognise that this is very distressing for many of you as it means you have already or will have your treatment stopped or delayed.’
The decision to ban all treatments is likely to prevent the births of at least 20,000 babies, HFEA figures suggest, should it remain in place for 12 months.
MailOnline has spoken to one women set to undergo IVF, who said that time is ‘not on our side’ and waiting just a few months will ‘reduce our chances massively’.
Days before Natalie Williams, 40, a midwife from Formby, Merseyside, was due to start taking her hormonal medication to prepare her body for IVF, she received the news that her treatment had been cancelled.
Mrs Williams and her husband Shaun, 39, had already taken out a loan to pay for IVF treatment which they are still paying back in instalments.
‘We totally understand why they are doing it, but I believe couples should have been given the choice and a disclaimer given to sign with the risks on,’ she said.
‘Many women will get pregnant naturally over then next few months and no one is telling them they can’t or mustn’t do so. We don’t believe it’s fair.’
Natalie Williams, 40, a midwife from Formby, is desperate to have a child with husband Shaun, 39
Meanwhile, calls to Fertility Network, the UK’s counselling helpline, have increased by 50 per cent in the past three weeks since lockdown measures were implemented.
Psychologists are also warning that the shutdown is having a ‘devastating’ impact on the mental health of IVF patients and putting a substantial strain on the marriages of infertile couples.
Women have already been urged not to have IVF amid the coronavirus outbreak over fears the virus negatively affects pregnancy.
A statement issued by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology says all couples considering fertility treatment ‘should avoid becoming pregnant at this time’.
Natalie argued: ‘Many women will get pregnant naturally over then next few months and no one is telling them they can’t or mustn’t do so. We don’t believe it’s fair’
It advised those who are already having IVF to consider freezing their eggs or the embryos they have created for a pregnancy until the pandemic is halted.
Mothers-to-be are strongly advised to follow social distancing measures – although the UK’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, said there is currently no evidence to suggest any coronavirus-related complications in pregnancy.
‘Infections and pregnancy are not a good combination in general and that is why we have taken the very precautionary measure while we try and find out more,’ Professor Whitty previously said.
HOW DOES IVF WORK?
In-vitro fertilisation, known as IVF, is a medical procedure in which a woman has an already-fertilised egg inserted into her womb to become pregnant.
It is used when couples are unable to conceive naturally, and a sperm and egg are removed from their bodies and combined in a laboratory before the embryo is inserted into the woman.
Once the embryo is in the womb, the pregnancy should continue as normal.
The procedure can be done using eggs and sperm from a couple or those from donors.
Guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that IVF should be offered on the NHS to women under 43 who have been trying to conceive through regular unprotected sex for two years.
People can also pay for IVF privately, which costs an average of £3,348 for a single cycle, according to figures published in January 2018, and there is no guarantee of success.
The NHS says success rates for women under 35 are about 29 per cent, with the chance of a successful cycle reducing as they age.
Around eight million babies are thought to have been born due to IVF since the first ever case, British woman Louise Brown, was born in 1978.
Chances of success
The success rate of IVF depends on the age of the woman undergoing treatment, as well as the cause of the infertility (if it’s known).
Younger women are more likely to have a successful pregnancy.
IVF isn’t usually recommended for women over the age of 42 because the chances of a successful pregnancy are thought to be too low.
Between 2014 and 2016 the percentage of IVF treatments that resulted in a live birth was:
29 per cent for women under 35
23 per cent for women aged 35 to 37
15 per cent for women aged 38 to 39
9 per cent for women aged 40 to 42
3 per cent for women aged 43 to 44
2 per cent for women aged over 44