A B.C. doctor involved in the birth of Canada’s first test-tube baby, born Christmas Day 1983, thinks of that day often — especially when advocating for provincial funding for in-vitro fertilization.
“It’s magical when you think of it,” said Dr. Timothy Rowe, head of the reproductive endocrinology and infertility division at the University of B.C. “It was a game-changer.”
Almost 30 years after Robert Reid was born in Grace Hospital on Dec. 25, 1983, in-vitro fertilization technology — when an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body and transferred back into a woman’s uterus — has advanced dramatically.
“My God, it was primitive when I think about how we started,” Rowe said, recalling how women had to be put under general anesthetic for her eggs to be collected, and once retrieved, there was a mad dash to get them to the lab.
Then, so-called “test-tube” babies were mockingly referred to as Franken-babies.
Now, it’s common for parents with fertility problems to have babies via in-vitro fertilization.
In Canada in 2010, there were 11,806 IVF and intracytoplasmic sperm injection of eggs cycles performed, and about 3,200 babies born as a result, Rowe said.
A demographic shift of women delaying pregnancy means more women are having difficulty getting pregnant, he said.
In B.C. alone, there are about 1,800 IVF procedures per year. The B.C. Perinatal Database recorded a total of 4,035 births after IVF in 2008-11 — about 1,000 a year, 2.0 to 2.5 per cent of all births. Some births resulted from procedure performed outside of B.C.
But while the number of people undergoing IVF has increased, funding has hardly changed. Each IVF treatment — a procedure that’s not guaranteed to work — ranges from $5,800 to $8,000 plus medication. B.C. does not cover the treatment.
Rowe is calling for the B.C. government to fund IVF — a call echoed by patient advocacy group Infertility Awareness Association of Canada.
The association is asking the province to fund three single-embryo transfers, similar to what is covered in Quebec.
“We would take anything, honestly,” said Rita Schnarr, the association’s Western Canada regional manager.
And it’s a stance the group believes is supported by British Columbians.
According to a survey released today, 73 per cent of B.C. residents surveyed think the provincial government should adopt public funding for IVF.
North Saanich resident Simone Whyte knows firsthand the financial toll IVF can take.
Whyte and her husband Ben spent about $50,000 over six years until they found a surrogate to carry their embryo. They now have a five-year-old daughter.
Family helped pay. The rest went on their credit card.
“You know thousands of dollars are being racked up each time, money you don’t have, but you don’t have any other choice,” she said.
“It’s so incredibly stressful and emotional. If it were funded, it would decrease the stress.”
Given the costs of IVF, some parents and doctors elect to transfer several embryos at a time in the hopes that one will be successful — sometimes resulting in multiple births, which can have higher health-care costs. B.C.’s multiple birth rate through IVF is 28 per cent — one of the highest in Canada, Schnarr said.
The association argues it’s cheaper to fund three single IVF treatments than deal with the possible immediate and long-term health-care costs related to high-risk multiple and sometimes premature births.
In 2010, Quebec became the first province in Canada to fund IVF, covering the cost of three cycles of a single fresh or frozen embryo being transferred into a woman’s uterus.
The program has reduced the number of multiple births resulting from IVF from approximately 30 per cent to less than 10 per cent and saved that province between $30 million and $60 million in associated health-care costs, Schnarr said.
B.C. does not cover in-vitro fertilizations because it is a costly procedure with a low live birth rate — 34 per cent for women under 35 — with higher risks for both mother and fetus, said Health Ministry spokesman Ryan Jabs.
In-vitro fertilization also carries a much higher risk of multiple births, with the associated higher risks for mother and fetuses, he said.
The province’s Medical Services Plan does cover minor fertility treatments and some diagnostic tests.
“We understand that there are many couples who have difficulty conceiving, but our focus is to ensure effective procedures, while keeping health care costs sustainable,” Jabs said.
In the early days of IVF, the procedure was only offered to women with blocked fallopian tubes.
IVF in Ontario is “only insured for the first three treatment cycles where the infertility is due to complete bilateral anatomical fallopian tube blockage that has not resulted from a sterilization procedure,” according to the province’s Ministry of Health.
“It’s very rigid scientific thinking,” Rowe said. “Infertility is infertility. You can’t discriminate.”
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