You are not alone

One of the most difficult things about living with fertility problems is the loneliness and isolation you can feel as everyone around you seems to be getting pregnant effortlessly. If you don’t tell other people what you are going through, you get questions about when you are going to have children and warnings that you don’t want to leave it too late. If you do tell people, you can end up with lots of advice you could do without (“why don’t you just relax/get a dog/go on holiday…”).

Last night, I facilitated a fertility group for the charity Fertility Network UK in South East London and it really struck me, as it does every time we meet, how beneficial it can be to spend some time with other people who really understand how you are feeling and who know what it is like. Fertility Network has groups meeting across the UK, mainly run by volunteers like me, which offer a haven for anyone experiencing fertility problems. It’s a unique opportunity to be with people who share similar experiences and to be able to talk openly and honestly about how you are feeling.

It’s National Fertility Week and there’s lots of work going on to raise awareness about many important fertility-related issues, but one of the most important messages for me is that you don’t need to go through this alone. There are opportunities to meet other people who can offer support, and the groups aren’t miserable or depressing, but rather an opportunity to help yourself to feel less lonely. There are 3.5 million people living with fertility problems in the UK and meeting some of the others may be just what you need.

New restrictions on IVF funding

It’s National Fertility Awareness Week and today the campaign group Fertility Fairness has released an audit which has found new restrictions on IVF funding. The survey covered all the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in England and found that 80% are failing to follow the NICE guidance which says that all eligible couples under the age of 39 should be offered 3 full cycles of IVF treatment.

Many are also setting new criteria to limit eligibility for treatment. Despite the fact that neither male age nor weight affect the success rate of IVF, more than a quarter of CCGs have decided to use the male partner’s body mass index (BMI) to decide whether a couple can access NHS treatment, and 8% no longer offer NHS funding if the male partner is 55 or over. Around one in four CCGs also use AMH or antral-follicle count to check a women’s ovarian reserve (an estimate of the number of eggs in the ovaries) to decide whether she is eligible for IVF. The NICE guidance gives some guidance on levels at which these may be helpful to assess how a woman may respond to the drugs used in IVF to stimulate the ovaries, but there is no suggestion at all that this might be used to decide who should be eligible for treatment.

Consultant gynaecologist and Fertility Fairness committee member Raj Mathur, said: ‘ Male age and BMI are not in the NICE guidance as criteria for IVF and there is no strong evidence of impact on clinical outcomes of IVF. AMH and antral follicle count are in the NICE guideline as predictors of ovarian response, but NOT as predictors of the chance of having a baby through IVF. Commissioners are making unjustified extrapolation in using them for rationing.’

The audit found that

  • 3.6% of CCGs have removed NHS IVF entirely
  • 40% do not offer a full IVF cycle, limiting the number of frozen embryo transfers
  • 20% offer one full IVF cycle, transferring all fresh and frozen embryos
  • 23% offer two IVF cycles.
  • 13% offer three IVF cycles.

In the last two years, 30 CCGs have reduced NHS fertility services, and one in ten CCGs is currently consulting on cutting or removing NHS fertility treatment.

Sarah Norcross, co-chair of Fertility Fairness, said: ‘It is shocking to see CCGs introducing their own ‘access to IVF’ criteria, as well as reducing the number of IVF cycles they offer. It is not the CCG’s job to decide the criteria for accessing NHS fertility services. NICE has accessed the evidence in its guideline and developed access criteria for NHS patients and they do not include male BMI, male age, a woman’s AMH level or whether or not a couple has a child from a previous relationship. What criteria will CCGs introduce next; star signs and shoe size? CCGs need to remove their extra ‘access to IVF’ criteria now.’

Aileen Feeney, co-chair of Fertility Fairness and chief executive of leading national charity Fertility Network UK said: ‘ Fertility Network is extremely concerned about the effect that reducing access to NHS IVF has on already distressed patients. Infertility is a devastating disease causing depression, suicidal feelings, relationship breakdown and social isolation; removing the recommended clinical help or making it harder to access is cruel and economically short-sighted. Access to NHS treatment should be according to medical need and not your postcode. We urge anyone affected to join Fertility Network’s #Scream4IVF campaign calling for fair access to NHS IVF in the UK; with your help we can reach 100,000 signatures and hold a debate on the issue at Westminster. Sign the petition at www.scream4IVF.org and share your #Scream4IVF during Fertility Week.’

Fertility milestones

In support of National Fertility Awareness Week, the HFEA or Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority which regulates the fertility sector, has published data which reveals some new milestones for UK fertility treatment.

More than 300,000 children in total have now been born in the UK from licensed fertility treatment since 1991. Fertility treatment has grown markedly since 2010, with almost a third of all IVF and DI babies since 1991 arriving in the last six recorded years (2010 to 2015).

The total number of treatment cycles carried out in UK clinics also passed a significant milestone in 2015, breaking through the million barrier. The overall number of treatments carried out since 1991 is 1,034,601.

The new data – drawn from The HFEA Register, the oldest and largest fertility database in the world – also reveals that fertility services are used mainly by younger women. The average age of women having fertility treatment is 35 years, which has remained largely static over recent years.

Treatments involving women aged 18-34 remain the largest single group, accounting for 43% of all treatments, while treatments for women aged 40 and over account for just 20% of all treatments with very few treatments being provided to women over 45.

Looking at the different regions in the UK, the data shows that most treatments continue to take place in London and the South East of England, accounting for 42% of all cycles. However, there is a strong representation of large northern clinics in the figures, with the North West now providing more treatments per clinic than any other region, including London. Total clinic numbers vary according to region, ranging from three in Northern Ireland to 22 in London.

HFEA Chair Sally Cheshire CBE welcomed this new data as a sign of a thriving and successful fertility sector: “The figures we have released today show that the UK’s fertility sector continues to be one of the most vibrant and successful in the world. Families using assisted reproduction services across the UK are better served than ever before, and we will continue to encourage all who work in the sector to offer the highest quality support for patients who are both successful and unsuccessful.”

Susan Seenan, chief executive of patient charity Fertility Network UK said “We welcome the publication during National Fertility Awareness Week of the new IVF milestones from the HFEA. The extraordinary growth of IVF in the last six years shows the pressing need for practical and emotional support and advice for the many people facing fertility issues. It is also significant to note that this data underlines that fertility services are used mainly by younger women – aged under 35 – who will have been trying for a baby for at least two years and often more. National Fertility Awareness Week is about challenging perceptions and we hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions about IVF and female age.”

Living without children webinar

For anyone who is facing a future without children, there is a free webinar which may be of interest later this week. In support of National Fertility Awareness Week, Kelly Da Silva, who set up an online community called the Dovecot to support people who are living without children, will be running the webinar on Thursday 2nd November from 7pm – 8pm.
.
The topic will be ‘Dealing with Involuntary Childlessness’, and Kelly will be taking questions after an initial input in this topic where she will be discussing the key challenges of childlessness including, shame, disappointment & the impact of childlessness on our daily lives. You can find out more and details of how to join the free webinar on the Dovecot Instagram page here.

Are you cycle savvy?

In support of National Fertility Awareness Week which starts today, Dr Fertility are launching #cyclesavvy, a national survey targeting women aged 25-44 years old to research the level of knowledge women have about their own fertility.

Anyone who has been trying to conceive for any length of time is likely to be very cycle savvy, but Dr Fertility believes that there is an unmet educational need when it comes to women understanding how they can get pregnant naturally.  The #cyclesavvy campaign follows up on the #bettersexeducation campaign in 2016, which focused on improving sex education in schools. However, Dr Fertility believes that, even with a better education at school, by the time a woman is ready to start a family, a lot of what she learned at school could easily be forgotten and some of this information could be out of date.

In 2016 Dr Fertility teamed up with Professor Allan Pacey, one of the UK’s leading male fertility experts, to launch the fantastic male fertility awareness campaign #spermbanter. This aimed to educate men and to evoke banter to tackle the male fertility taboo.

The campaign aims to collect at least 300 responses and once the data is analysed the results will be published. To help plug the anticipated knowledge gap, Dr Fertility will launch a #cyclesavvy bite-sized video series presented by Fertility Nurse Consultant, Kate Davies, alongside the results. You can click here to take the #cyclesavvy test.

Interview with Julia Leigh, author of AVALANCHE

7432976-1x1-700x700We spoke to Julia Leigh, author of Avalanche, at the start of our National Fertility Awareness Week and began by asking her what she thought of the idea.

It’s a wonderful idea which I hope will focus more attention on under-reported fertility issues. Also, it’s a special way to bring together those whose lives have been touched by infertility.

Do you think we are too reluctant to speak openly about fertility issues?
There’s no reluctance on the part of the multi-billion dollar worldwide fertility industry to promote this area of medicine. For example, this month [October] the American Society for Reproductive Medicine Scientific Congress & Expo took place in Salt Lake City, Utah. Exhibitors represented at the Expo included a fertility clinic network; a myriad of ‘bio tech’, ‘health technology’, ’genetic screening’ and ’diagnostic solutions’ laboratories; biopharmaceutical manufacturers; food and vitamin supplement manufacturers; pharmacists; surrogacy and donor organisations; laboratory equipment suppliers; attorneys; insurers; cryobankers and cryoshippers; marketing and brand strategists; a big data analyst; specialist software providers; and a joint venture partner who promised to turn growing medical practices into successful businesses. There’s also no reluctance on the part of the media to report successful ‘miracle’ births. There is a reluctance, however, to talk openly about the plain fact that most treatment cycles fail. To give some perspective, about 80% of treatment cycles fail. There’s also a disturbing reluctance to talk openly about the physical and emotional harms of treatment. It’s almost as if patients and doctors and others in the fertility world are so bewitched by the beautiful possibility of a ‘live birth’ that they turn a blind eye to the real harms.

Your book Avalanche about your own story is intensely personal – was it difficult to be so open in public?
At the time of writing I felt that I’d already lost so much I didn’t care about losing face – and that afforded me an enormous freedom. My heart goes out to anyone who is doing treatment now.

What made you want to write the book?
I wrote an Author’s Note for my publishers and I think it gives the best idea of why I wanted to write the book. Here it is:
A writer contemplating whether or not to begin a new work asks herself – Is this truly a story worth telling? Avalanche felt necessary. I’ve tried to tell an intensely personal story about a common experience that has largely remained unspoken. I wanted to offer a ‘shared aloneness’ to anyone who has desperately longed for a child. I hope I’ve brought into the light the way the IVF industry really works – and I could only do that in non-fiction. I wanted to transmit what it feels like to be on the so-called ‘emotional roller-coaster’, to deeply honour that complex experience in all its detail. Ways of loving, the mysteries of the body, the vagaries of science, the ethics of medicine – the material raised so many questions. I started writing it very soon after I made the decision to stop treatment because I wanted to capture my strong feelings before they were blanketed by time. I wanted to write something for all the women who are contemplating IVF, or currently undergoing it, or who have stopped or who are thinking about stopping (it’s so hard – the decision to ‘give up’). I wanted to speak to their family and friends. I wanted to speak to young women who in a misguided way might be relying on fertility treatment as a kind of back-up. And I wanted to speak to the policy-makers too. Since there is so much IVF failure I wanted to provide an alternative voice to the miracle stories we frequently see in the media. I wanted to counter the push – yes, the push – of the worldwide multi-billion dollar IVF industry.

Do you think people need more emotional support when they are going through treatment?
It’s difficult to discuss treatment with family and friends but in so doing a patient can lighten the emotional burden. There’s also the counselling option. In my case, the clinic offered free in-house counselling as part of the very expensive treatment package…but I would advise seeking an outside independent therapist. I say this because the decision to stop treatment, to give up, that incredibly painful decision, sits uncomfortably with the fact that clinics are making money from their patients. In my case, when I was 44, using my own eggs, and I’d already done 2 IUI’s and 6 egg collections plus subsequent transfers, my doctor suggested I try once more. It was my sister who had the courage to tell me firmly that I needed to stop. I feel an independent therapist would be well-placed to basically warn patients of the emotional pitfalls that can lay ahead. Is there such a thing as pro-active counselling? Identifying the traps for new players and advising how best to respond to them…identifying the tricks of the mind that don’t serve patients well…I think a therapist who was familiar with the IVF world, who had experience in this area, would be best.

And do you think there is adequate support when treatment doesn¹t work?
There was little to no follow-up from my clinic after I decided to stop treatment. I can’t recall exactly – there may have been one phone call. I saw an independent therapist.

Here in the UK, the individual success rates for individual clinics are collated and published by the fertility regulator, the HFEA, and are broken down by age too. Do you think access to information like this would have made a difference to you?
Yes I would have loved to see results for my individual clinic. That would have helped. But I also want to note that I did see the graphs on my clinic website which used our ANZARD data and clearly showed how fertility dropped away with age. (The ANZARD report collates data from all clinics in Australia and New Zealand but doesn’t identify individual clinics). And when I was 40 my first doctor at the clinic said I had about a 20% chance of ‘taking home a baby’. BUT as it happened, at age 43, when I was transferring a thawed 5 day blastocyst, using my own egg, I asked my new doctor what my odds were of being pregnant (please note, pregnancy not live birth). Even though I’d seen the fertility graphs I figured my chances would somehow be better than the average because unlike some patients my age I was both responding to drugs and producing blastocyts: “Pollyanna Juggernaut could do amazing things with the numbers.” In reply to my question about odds, the doctor said “A Day 5 blastocyst has about a 40% chance.” I took that to mean I had a 40% chance of being pregnant – but later I discovered the 40% figure was for women of all ages. I hope that illustrates how statistics can be malleable…

What changes do you think we could make to try to ensure that fewer women suffer the kind of anguish you went through?
That’s a good question and I don’t have any easy answers. I wonder if there couldn’t be a buffer between women – especially older women – who are prepared to do almost anything to have a child and the clinics who are prepared to put patients through almost anything even though there is no guarantee of a successful outcome, far from it. In Australia a well-respected doctor put a patient through 37 cycles. 37! He had no qualms about that since she did end up with a child. But what if she hadn’t? I’m not sure what happens in the UK but in my case it was my General Practitioner who referred me to the fertility clinic. My GP never asked how my treatment was going. I wonder if GP’s could step in as a buffer, walk patients through the facts and figures, help decide whether or not to do an experimental protocol advocated by the clinic that will cause physical harm but has limited evidence of benefit, to basically serve as a ‘reality check’. There’s a great deal clinics can do to change…For example, during an embryo transfer my doctor pointed to an image of the blastocyst on the ultrasound screen and said ‘That’s the baby’. At the time, I thought it generous and I was touched that the doctor might be the only person in the world who would ever refer to ‘my baby’ but in retrospect the comment – that’s the baby – only heightened my intense desire for a child.

Spermbanter

If you haven’t seen them already, do catch the brilliant videos with Professor Allan Pacey titled #spermbanter made by Dr Fertility for National Fertility Awareness Week which give the facts about sperm production and what makes a difference to your sperm count. Professor Pacey is one of the country’s leading experts on male fertility and these videos are incredibly informative and give the facts – and also address many of the common myths about factors which can influence sperm and fertility too.

Do catch them – watch them all – it won’t take long. You may find it reassuring and you will certainly find it informative.

You can catch the videos on How sperm are made

What factors affect sperm quality

 

on how diet affects fertility

does smoking affect your sperm quality

and why a man might not have any sperm

There are a number of others – you will find them all once you start watching!

National Fertility Awareness Week starts on Monday

955banner-1

 

 

National Fertility Awareness Week starts on Monday 31st October and runs through to Sunday 6th November 2016. It is your week and you can help Fertility Network UK to raise awareness during the week.

Fertility issues are all too often misrepresented and misunderstood. It’s common for media attention to be focused on stereotypes of fertility struggles: the 30 – or 40 – something career woman who’s left it too late; the against-the-odds IVF success story or the woman who’s apparently easily come to terms with childlessness – but this is far from the real picture.

During National Fertility Awareness Week, Fertility Network UK aims to highlight the unseen, intimate and day-to-day reality of fertility issues, to overturn commonly-held misconceptions about fertility and to shine a spotlight on untold fertility stories.

In the UK, 1 in 6 couples experience the pain fertility issues bring. Even if you don’t have direct experience, you probably know someone who does – a family member, friend or work colleague. We hope people will join in, raise funds and help change perceptions about fertility issues.’

The five focus areas for this year’s media campaign are:

  • The myth of the middle-aged would-be-mum: fertility issues in your 20s and early 30s
  • The truth about fertility treatment: we know that 75% of individual IVF cycles are unsuccessful and that most people who become parents after treatment go through more than one cycle. What is it like to face multiple rounds of treatment?
  • The hidden half: men are just as likely as women to suffer from fertility issues
  • Facing up to childlessness: coming to terms with childlessness is too often portrayed as a straightforward process when the reality is far from that
  • Life after successful IVF: the taboo of secondary infertility and can life as the parent of an IVF miracle ever be normal?

You can find out more about how to get involved at the National Fertility Awareness Week website and on Twitter with the hashtags #NFAWUK #HiddenFaces #fertilityin5

For anyone who is trying to conceive

955banner
If you are experiencing fertility problems and feeling lonely and isolated, I am sure you will find this video will resonate with you. The video is part of Fertility Network UK’s #HiddenFaces campaign for National Fertility Awareness Week and has been generating a lot of positive responses from people who know what it’s like to live with fertility problems. It was made by Jessica Hepburn, who is a trustee of the charity and an author – she writes a blog called after her book – The Pursuit of Motherhood – which is also worth looking at.

Jessica is an amazing woman who has swum the Channel to raise funds for Fertility Network UK and she is the brains behind the wonderful Fertility Fest which some of you may have been fortunate enough to attend in London or Birmingham earlier this year.

Thank you Jessica on behalf of everyone who knows what it is like not to be able to conceive, thank you for talking about something so personal and difficult, thank you for your courage and warmth and for all you do to raise awareness of something so many people find too difficult to talk about x

Could you join Fertility Network’s video campaign?

Cmhc-LqWYAAWk88As part of Fertility Network UK’s #HiddenFaces campaign for National Fertility Awareness Week they are hoping to make video diaries of personal fertility stories.

If you are happy to tell your story to camera (it should take 30min max) and can travel to Covent Garden, London for filming during the coming weeks, you can email Catherine Hill at media@fertilitynetworkuk.org or call 07469-660845 to find out more about taking part. Fertility Network UK needs your help to make these films!