On 24 March, the official regulator for fertility clinics, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced no new treatment can begin. It means patients who’d already started an IVF cycle can finish it, but all treatment after 15 April has been stopped.
At the moment, it feels like life has been put on pause… Literally. The government has advised us to ‘stay at home’ to help control the spread of coronavirus. So what does this mean for women who are struggling to fall pregnant and embarking on ?
IVF is already a daunting, stressful and emotionally-draining process. But now, there are now a whole new cohort of people with the added layer of uncertainty of whether they will ever get pregnant because treatment has been postponed indefinitely.
On the face of it, HFEA’s measures are simply complying with government social distancing advice to flatten the curve and ease the burden on the NHS which is already under huge pressure. Sounds reasonable. But that doesn’t change how upsetting this is for so many who now feel helpless in their pursuit of parenthood.
“We have had many calls from patients who are upset and distressed by the indefinite delay,” said Dr Geeta Nargund, Medical Director at mental health impact, particularly when patients know that time is of the essence and that it may impact upon their chance to become biological mothers.”and . “Not knowing when they’re able to start treatment brings with it a potentially serious
Dr Nargund says that once a patient is given medication to stimulate ovaries, it can take up to two weeks to mature the eggs and prepare them for egg collection. First, she is given stimulation medication and monitored with ultrasound scans and blood tests, before an egg-collection procedure is booked in. Next, the eggs are fertilised with sperm in a lab to create embryos. Embryo/s are either transferred as fresh embryos three or five days later or frozen for later use.
Nargund says the treatment suspension has been particularly hard for women who have waited a long time for IVF or those diagnosed with a very low egg reserve, for whom time is of the essence.
Matilda*, 37, from Cheshire has a low Anti-Mullerian hormone level for her age, indicating a decreased egg reserve. She’s had two unsuccessful rounds of NHS-funded IVF, in August 2019 and January 2020. She and partner Eric*, 41, scraped together savings and borrowed from family and friends for private treatment, costing around £7,000.
“At first, I was reluctant,” Matilda says. “If you have another round of heartbreak, you lose all that money. But you also feel, ‘if I don’t do it, will I live the rest of my life in regret?’
“We decided, finding all the funds, going into debt, using our life-savings, it’s such a huge risk. Sometimes I feel physically sick about spending that amount on a small chance and potentially ending up with nothing at all,” she explains.
The clinic put Matilda on the pill and scheduled her egg collection for 17 April. But her treatment was cancelled as it had surpassed HEFA’s deadline by two days. As Matilda’s turning 38 in a couple of months, she’s concerned the delay for someone her age could mean not having a biological child.
“Your chances diminish every month. This could have been my month, this could have been my cycle. I’m losing that chance and it’s getting less likely it will ever work. If this lasts six or twelve months, I’ve spent all that money and it’s going to be pointless,” she says. “I’ve lived from appointment-to-appointment for close to a year, trying to keep healthy, not drinking alcohol, doing things to prepare and now there’s no appointments, there’s nothing. I don’t know how to carry on. I’m depressed and angry at just how hopeless you are as a woman in this situation.”
Matilda says she will try again once the suspension lifts, but knows her chances will be slimmer.
Leanne Jones, 31, from Hampshire is having re-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) IVF because her husband Kyle, 30, has a genetic disorder called PKD1 which affects life-expectancy and has a 50% chance of being hereditary..
During five years of treatment, Leanne’s had two cycles resulting in early miscarriages in September 2019 and February 2020. “When you have a positive pregnancy test, a door opens. You’re planning the next 35 years of your life and your emotions run away with you. Then someone goes ‘nope’ and shuts the door. It’s grief. My emotions were like someone had died. I felt like someone had taken my right to breathe and I couldn’t catch my breath at all,” she explains.
As a midwife, Leanne sympathises for NHS staff, both in the face of COVID-19 and the suspension: “It must be horrendous. It’s hard but it’s the right thing.”
What can you do if you’re in a similar situation?
Dr Nargund suggests:
1. Use this time to make sure your body is ready for treatment. Make sure you’re maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and following a balanced diet. While it may be difficult during this time, trying to stay relaxed and giving up vices such as smoking will all help to optimise your fertility status.
2. Do your research. There are multiple discussion groups and webinars being hosted that will allow you to better understand the treatment suspension and what it means for you, as well as ask questions of experts and decide on what treatment is right for you.
3. Explore getting treatment started online. Some clinics are offering virtual consultations that can be conducted over video call and using hormonal blood tests conducted at home. This will allow you to get the process moving and ensure that once the lockdown is lifted treatment can be started as soon as possible.
are updating patient guidance on their website.
support line (0121 323 5025) is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10am-4pm.
(BICA) have a ‘Find A Counsellor’ section on their website.
Professor Dr Geeta Nargund atis hosting webinars twice a week to provide information and guidance for all those considering starting treatment after the suspension.