Infertility is not often widely spoken about, yet it is a condition which affects a surprisingly large number of couples. For many, falling pregnant is an emotional and lengthy journey. It’s therefore important to continue with fertility treatment, even during a pandemic.
Infertility is when you cannot get or stay pregnant after trying for at least a year and you are under the age of 35. Or, if you are over the age of 35 and are unable to get or stay pregnant for six months,” says Dr Sulaiman Heylen, President of the Southern African Society of Reproductive Medicine and Gynaecological Endoscopy (SASREG).
On the rise
In the past few years, the number of couples seeking treatment for infertility has increased as women have children later in life. Also, lifestyle factors such as stress, smoking and body weight affect fertility. The fear of contracting COVID-19 has now also affected many people’s fertility journeys.
Infertility affects one in every four couples in developing countries
For those already undergoing fertility treatment, when COVID-19 hit, there was a suspension of treatment worldwide and the subsequent delay of fertility treatments has resulted in much psychological distress for many patients.
“In addition to psychological issues, there are the physiological ones too,” says Dr Heylen. “Delaying fertility treatment due to fear of COVID-19 can further reduce your chances of successful treatment outcomes, with studies showing a reduction in live birth rates in patients who have postponed treatment.”
“There was no treatment during the hard lockdown, but clinics are open once again. Particularly ‘high risk’ patients whose chances of falling pregnant would be further reduced by delaying treatment are encouraged to seek assistance,” says Dr Heylen.
“It’s very important to stress that assisted reproductive technology (ART) clinics are safe. They have taken precautions to ensure the health and safety of patients and staff,” says Dr Heylen. “There is minimal risk of exposure to the virus at these clinics. there is therefore no need to wait for a vaccine to reach out to receive fertility treatment.”
Dr Heylen also notes that there has been much misinformation circulating online about the potential negative impact the COVID-19 vaccine might have on fertility, which has been causing patients to delay treatment while deliberating whether to have the COVID-19 vaccine or not.
The vaccination debate
With COVID-19 vaccines now available globally, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has stated that there is “absolutely no evidence” that these vaccines can affect the fertility of women or men.
“Encourage patients undergoing fertility treatment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available,” says Dr Heylen. “There’s no evidence that vaccination before or during fertility treatment will impact the outcome of treatment in any way. As the vaccine does not contain any actual virus, there is also no reason to delay pregnancy attempts after vaccination.”
People undergoing fertility treatment (in vitro fertilisation (IVF), frozen embryo transfer, egg freezing, ovulation induction, intrauterine insemination, or using donated gametes) can be vaccinated during treatment. They may wish to consider the timing given the potential side effects in the few days after vaccination.
It is possible to start fertility treatment immediately after being vaccinated. Those donating their eggs or sperm for the use of others can also still have a COVID-19 vaccine.
“More than 50% of patients who visit a fertility centre are 35 or older,” says Dr Heylen. “It is very important for people not to wait too long when they consider having children. There is a slow decline in fertility for women in their 20s until the age of 35. Thereafter, it starts to decrease rapidly until the age of 45.”
1 in 6 couples experiences some form of infertility problem at least once in their reproductive lifetimes
“It is extremely important to investigate your fertility options earlier in life. A woman who is not ready to have a child can choose to freeze her eggs. She can therefore choose to have a child later.”
An estimated more than 9 million babies have been born worldwide since the first IVF baby of the late 1970s. The most common fertilisation treatment is intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI). This accounts for around three quarters of all treatments globally while conventional IVF accounts for around one quarter. Success rates from frozen embryo transfer are increasing too.
“The good news is that there have been massive advances in the field of assisted reproduction in the last decade. There is hope for those who might be suffering from some form of infertility,” says Dr Heylen.
For more fertility facts
Visit a fertility clinic near you to speak to a doctor about the options available to you and your partner.