Every year, thousands of desperate couples sacrifice their time, emotions and hard-earned cash in pursuit of their dream baby. The average IVF spend is £5,000, with some couples forking out up to £40,000 for a child that might never arrive.
Almost 40,000 women had IVF treatment in the UK in 2008.
While around 15,000 children are born every year as a result of the treatment, shockingly just a quarter of IVF cycles end with a baby being born safely.
Encouraged by success stories, many childless couples desperately want to believe that impressive records from certain clinics make a baby a real likelihood, rather than just a possibility.
And while most of us don’t have the budget to pay for endless IVF cycles – not to mention the physical strain and emotional turmoil that go with them – there is no doubt some couples will do everything in their power to conceive.
It is this level of desperation that some people fear is being exploited by some UK fertility clinics.
Dr Marilyn Glenville, an expert on improving fertility naturally, says: “Some clinics are doing extra tests when they’re not necessary.
“But would-be parents are desperate and will try and pay for anything when they don’t know how much is absolutely necessary.”
For Sian Buchanan and her husband Tony, 46, the need for a baby turned into rounds of tests, treatment and IVF cycles that took them to the depths of despair.
Sian, 42, explains: “Being told you can’t have a baby makes you want one even more, and it’s hard to be told you can’t be a mother.
“When me and Tony started looking into fertility treatment we had only been trying for six months, but, at 37, I knew I had to get a move on if we were to have a family.
“And although we knew we were entitled to a cycle of IVF on the NHS, we were prepared to pay whatever it took to conceive.
“In that situation, you almost become numb to handing over your credit card.”
For Sian, there was no hesitation when an NHS fertility consultant advised them to go to a private clinic rather than wait for their free cycle.
At her age, she was convinced she couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
She recalls: “We chose a London clinic that had an incredibly impressive success rate for IVF.
“We had tests, scans and blood tests, but when we came to the point of starting IVF, having built us up, they suddenly told me my hormone levels were too high.
“Even though we’d paid £1,000 by this point, we walked away as we didn’t feel they were giving us enough clear information, and suspected they were more concerned about their success rates than me getting pregnant.
“We felt we were handing over money without knowing what was really happening.
“It was so disheartening. We then started private IVF treatment through a hospital, at a cost of £6,000, but this not only didn’t work but it also left me with an infection that landed me in hospital.
“It was a very lonely and desperate time for us.
“After spending that much money, the feeling of disappointment and isolation was huge.”
Apart from the cost and the trauma, it seems the biggest problem is a lack of information and support for couples, resulting in misinformed decisions.
Some would-be parents are even missing free treatment.
Couples contemplating IVF should do research in advance, says Camille Strachan, whose charity To Hatch provides details on NHS fertility policies, criteria for each area, plus clinics’ success rates.
She explains: “When you first visit your GP to discuss options, it pays to do your homework first or you could end up losing out on free NHS treatment.
“There’s a referral period, which in some areas is six months, but for others can be up to two years.
“Your age can affect whether or not you’ll be referred – if a woman’s not on a waiting list by 38, there’s a good chance she’s not going to be seen in time.
“And in some boroughs you must have lived there at least a year.”
NHS guidelines recommend offering eligible couples up to three cycles of IVF, but budget constraints have been so severe that several health trusts have been forced to restrict access to fertility treatment, with some suspending artificial insemination altogether.
It’s no surprise that up to 80% of IVF work is done privately, with cycles costing £3,500 on average – and extras, including hormone treatments, cost thousands more.
Camille, who herself had one failed cycle of IVF before conceiving naturally with the help of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, believes clinics are overcharging and taking advantage of couples’ desperation to conceive.
She says: “Prices vary enormously between clinics. One might charge £1,900 for IVF and another £2,500. And there’s no difference between the treatment offered.
“I believe that there should simply be a blanket set price agreed between them.”
Of course, a price list doesn’t tell the whole story.
Medical circumstances might mean couples need more tests or surgery, or require a higher dosage of drugs.
It might cost one couple £2,000 or £3,000 more than another, and that cannot always be avoided.
Camille explains: “This just increases the belief that some clinics will overcharge.
“There needs to be transparency over the potential costs of IVF.”
So how do clinics massage their figures? Dr Glenville explains: “Some keep their success rates high by being very selective – they won’t take on any unsuccessful candidates for a full-term pregnancy as it would affect their statistics.
“Couples in that situation end up getting private IVF through hospitals that don’t have that criteria.
“Or some clinics will take a couple through the start of IVF and then tell them it’s going to be turned into a IUI (artificial insemination).
“By doing that, it doesn’t class as an abandoned cycle of IVF, thus not affecting the clinic’s statistics.”
If you have to go private, there are key things to check when choosing a clinic.
“Look at the take-home baby rate, not just the pregnancy rate, as many IVF pregnancies end in miscarriage,” explains Dr Glenville.
“And look for success rates in your age group, not just the average across the board.”
The good news is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has committed to making clinics take more responsibility for patient information, ensuring their websites give vulnerable couples realistic guidance. This news comes after fertility treatment pioneer, Lord Robert Winston, criticised clinics for making exaggerated claims and overcharging for treatment and drugs.
For many hopeful couples, the changes can’t come soon enough. But in the meantime, there are alternatives to IVF.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are believed to help boost fertility, and lifestyle changes can make a massive difference.
At the Marilyn Glenville Clinic couples are helped to conceive naturally through making lifestyle changes, which can also improve the chances of IVF being successful.
Dr Glenville says: “We can’t change the quantity of a woman’s eggs, but we can improve quality.”
This normally involves two visits, costing between £155 and £175 for the first appointment and from £97 to £115 for the second.
Helen Heap, senior nutritionist at the clinic, says: “Follow a wholesome diet with minimal additives, eat meals cooked from scratch and lots of fruit and veg.
“Cut down on tea, coffee, sugar, alcohol and red meat and stick to organic meat and milk, or there can be negative hormonal influences.”
Sian has had a happy ending, but not without a struggle.
“We finally had our free cycle of IVF on the NHS and also a treatment called ICSI where the sperm is injected into the egg, but we were struggling to get viable embryos.
“As I was about to turn 40 we decided to do another cycle privately after my birthday, as three embryos get transferred (before 40 only two are transferred) increasing your chances of conceiving.
“So, for the first time in a long time, we kicked back and relaxed with our family for a while.
“And that’s when, to our utter disbelief, I got pregnant naturally.
“When the test showed positive I crumpled on the floor, sobbing.
“I’d learned to live with ‘no’ and this was so unexpected – and so incredibly welcome.”
Now their daughter Francesca is a happy, 20-month-old child.
And anyone would think Sian wouldn’t dream of enduring the trauma, cost and discomfort of IVF again – right?
She says: “Tony doesn’t want to, but I would – we’d find the money somehow. I’d give it one more go and then stop trying.”
● IUI or Artificial Insemination – lower cost, lower success rate but less invasive and traumatic. Sperm are washed and the best are inseminated into the cervix with the help of an ultrasound scan to monitor ovulation.
It is a good idea to try this before IVF.
● Egg sharing – during the course of an IVF cycle, you donate six of your 12 eggs, and these can be sold to another woman – in theory, paying for your IVF. But you must be happy with the thought that the other woman may conceive with your eggs, and there’s a chance you may not. Anonymity has now been taken away for donors, so any children can track you down from the age of 18.
● Embryo freezing – if your IVF treatment produces 12 eggs and six are good embryos, only two can be implanted so the rest can be frozen. If that cycle doesn’t work, those frozen embryos can be implanted for the next cycle, and this reduces cost.
Article: 22nd June 2011 www.mirror.co.uk
Read more about IVF and low cost alternatives such as home insemination at www.prideangel.com