Question: My Husband & I had been married for 8 years, we have tried many different methods of getting pregnancy with no avail (except IVF). The reason I have not attempted IVF is because I heard that it is extremely expensive with low success rates, is this true?
Dr Helena’s Answer: Many people have a lot of myths and misunderstanding about IVF. In fact, IVF started in the 1970’s with many controversies. It used to be regarded as cultic practice in science, intertwined with many religious, social and ethical controversies
However, many years had gone by and IVF had progressed in leaps and bounds in its technology and approach, proving to the world its value and safety. At the turn of this century, reproductive doctors and scientists had achieved many new innovations and breakthroughs, to make IVF more accessible and safer. Hence, IVF had gradually become the mainstream in reproductive science, making the dreams of having children a reality for many couples
However, it is not unusual to find that people are still weary about IVF, and there are still myths and misconceptions surrounding IVF.
One of the myths about IVF is that it’s extremely costly. We hear stories that people had to ‘loose an arm or a leg’ to be able to afford IVF.
The truth is that IVF cost had reduced remarkably for the last 10-20 years, thanks to many creative innovations, especially in the advent of cost effective medications, culture mediums and lab equipments. The advent of a new freezing technique, called vitrification, allows IVF scientists to freeze embryos more effectively to allow storage of excessive embryos, to be used later, cutting down the need to repeat another IVF cycle, making IVF more cost effective.
The cost of IVF in Malaysia is generally ranging between RM12,000-RM20,000. The price range varies because of differences in clinical and laboratory settings, medications used and etc
The success rates are generally good depending on the age of the women. For women aged below 35, the success rate is about 60-80%. For women above the age of 35 but below the age of 40, the success rate is around 50%. The success rate fell dramatically after the women crossed 40 years of age.
There is recent study on Danish population about the cost effectiveness of IVF. The study followed almost 20,000 Danish women undergoing fertility treatments including IVF. Within three years, 65% of the women had given birth, with the figure rising to 71% within five years.
Therefore, it is important to find out more about IVF before deciding on or against it.
Can IVF Cause Cancer?
Today’s post addresses a question that I am often asked at the clinic – Can IVF cause cancer?
This concern very likely stems from a study done 12 years ago, which has since been well-publicised. It reported that the use of Clomid, which is a fertility medication widely used to treat ovulatory dysfunction in women, might increase the risk of breast and uterine cancer.
Understandably, this has caused some infertility patients to wonder if the treatments they will undergo are safe. Therefore, today I’d like to reassure you by providing references to other studies on the subject.
It’s important to note that since that study was first published, more studies have been conducted and most have found no significant link between Clomid use and cancer risk. One such study, which in fact offers the strongest evidence that Clomid and other ovarian-stimulating drugs do not increase the risk of ovarian cancer, comes from the Cochrane Review.
Published in 2013, the review looked at studies from 1990 to February 2013 that involved 182,972 women. The review not only found no evidence of increased ovarian cancer in women who use any fertility drug, but also pointed out that studies claiming there is an increased cancer risk were unreliable. This is because their sample sizes were too small for drawing conclusions and they did not take into consideration other potential risks for cancer.
For example, if a woman has never experienced pregnancy, her risk of cancer increases. Certain causes of infertility can also cause an increased risk of cancer, for example obesity, PCOS and endometriosis. So in fact, the increased risk of cancer noted in those studies may not be related to the medications at all.
In fact, ironically, some studies showed a decreased risk of developing breast and uterine cancer among infertile women on Clomid, in comparison to infertile women who did not seek treatment for infertility.
There are two other studies, with substantial sample sizes, which included 25,108 women from the Netherlands who received IVF treatment between 1980 and 1995, found that there was no increased risk of breast cancer. Another study, by the Institute of Child Health at University College London, which involved over 250,000 British women undergoing IVF between 1991 and 2010, also found no increased risk of breast or uterine cancer in those patients. However, they learned that IVF patients had a slightly higher risk of ovarian cancer – 15 in 10,000 odds, as compared to women who had never undergone IVF, who had 11 in 10,000 odds.
So as a consensus, from the studies quoted above and others like them, you can rest assured that fertility drugs like Clomid do not increase your risk of developing breast or uterine cancer. However, because infertility itself is a cancer risk factor, it is best that you undergo the necessary follow-up after your infertility diagnosis.
Should you have any concerns on the medications and treatments for infertility, please don’t hesitate to speak to your infertility consultant.
Endometrial scratching to improve IVF success rates
Couples who are struggling with infertility often seek In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) treatment in order to improve their chances of starting a family. But what happens when you have gone through multiple unsuccessful IVF cycles? Is there something else you can try?
Many patients who’ve experienced this first hand, have asked me this question, eager to try out something new to enhance their chances in the next IVF cycle. Therefore, today, I’d like to tell you more about a procedure called endometrial scratching, which has become increasingly popular in recent years.
What is it?
Endometrial scratching is a procedure that involves agitation of the endometrium, which is the mucus membrane that lines the uterus. For conception to occur, a fertilised egg has to successfully implant itself into the wall of the uterus. Sometimes, implantation fails, usually due to the quality of the embryo or the receptivity of the endometrium. In endometrial scratching, a fertility specialist passes a special thin catheter or pipille through a woman’s cervix. The pipille is then moved up and down to gently make tiny scratches or scrapes in the uterine lining. The similar effect can also be achieved by introducing a hysteroscope through the cervix to visualised the lining of the uterus during polyps removal.
Why is it done?
In theory, endometrial scratching is believed to trigger the uterus to repair itself and develop a new lining, which will be more receptive to an embryo implanting. While the effectiveness of the procedure needs further investigation, studies that have been done on endometrial scratching in recent years have shown encouraging results.
One such study was conducted by the University of Nottingham, UK, which involved 158 women who had undergone unsuccessful IVF procedures. The women were divided into two groups, with one group given the endometrial scratching procedure. As a result, they found the women who had undergone the scratching procedure achieved a 49% pregnancy rate, compared to 29% in the other group.
In another study involving 1000 women, presented at the annual meeting of European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), endometrial scratching is said to increase pregnancy success rates for couples trying to conceive naturally or with Intrauterine Insemination (IUI).
When is it done?
The endometrial scratching procedure is usually recommended for patients who’ve experienced multiple unsuccessful IVF cycles or Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI) treatment. The procedure is best performed prior to a woman’s period or right after the period. It is done before an IVF or frozen embryo transfer (FET) cycle begins.
Does it hurt?
While the endometrial scratching procedure has been described as generally painless, requiring no anaesthetic, some women do experience discomfort during and after the procedure. The pain is similar to period cramps and there may be slight bleeding afterwards. To help with possible discomfort, patients are advised to take over-the-counter pain medication about an hour before undergoing the scratching procedure.
If you’ve gone through several IVF attempts and are keen on learning more about endometrial scratching, take the next step and ask your fertility specialist if it is right for you.
What you should know about AMH
When you seek medical advice for infertility issues, one of the hormone tests that you be advice to take is the Anti-Mullerian Hormone or AMH test. This test measures the AMH levels in your blood, which helps doctors determine your ovarian or egg reserve.
In this post, I’ll explain what egg reserves and AMH tests are, as well as what you can do if your AMH levels are low:
About egg reserves
Humans are born with a limited amount of eggs. To be precise, a girl is born with between one to two million immature eggs or follicles in her ovaries. But not all these follicles will survive into adulthood. In fact, throughout a woman’s life, the majority of her immature eggs will die in a natural process called atresia.
Did you know that by the time a girl has her first period, only about 400,000 follicles are left? And with each subsequent period, she loses about a thousand follicles, while just one matures into an ovum or egg. This means, throughout her reproductive life, a woman will develop only about 400 ovum. The number of developing follicles a woman has left, is called her “ovarian or egg reserve.”
Egg reserves and the quality of those eggs vary from one woman to another, due to factors such as age and infertility. Over time, both the quantity and quality of a woman’s eggs gradually decreases. Therefore, when seeking treatment for infertility, it is important for a woman to gain insight into the remaining quantity of her egg reserve and fertile years.
What is AMH?
When follicles develop in a woman’s egg reserve, her body release the Anti-Müllerian Hormone (AMH). AMH levels, therefore, can give us a good idea of the state of a woman’s ovarian reserve. Since AMH levels are determined by the number of developing follicles in a woman’s ovaries, low AMH levels are an indication that the ovarian reserve is depleted.
Fewer developing follicles mean slimmer chances for a mature and healthy egg to be released and fertilised. As such, when a woman knows the state of her egg reserve, she can determine how urgently she requires treatment.
While egg reserves generally decline in the mid to late 30s, leading to low AMH, age is not the only factor. Environmental factors can also cause low AMH, such as cancer treatment and inherited genetic causes. AMH levels can be easily assessed with a blood test, but like most diagnostic tests, it has its limitations. For example, it cannot indicate the quality of the eggs that are left, which requires a separate test. However, as AMH levels remain fairly constant in a woman’s cycle, she can have the test at any time.
What Can’t AMH tells you
As much as we would like to believe that AMH is ‘the ultimate test’ for ovarian reserves, however, it only tells us some aspect of your fertility performances but not all. AMH does not tell you the quality of your eggs. Therefore, some women who have plenty of eggs and high AMH level may not perform well in an IVF treatment cycle because of poor egg quality.
For women who take oral contraceptive pills, AMH level may not be a true reflection of their ovarian reserves. Those who were taking the pill had 19 percent lower levels of AMH and 16 percent fewer early-stage follicles.
Recently, there has been clinical studies which reported that there is a significant variation in serum AMH levels across the menstrual cycle regardless of ovulatory status. This variability, although statistically significant, is not large enough to warrant a change in current clinical practice to time AMH measurements to cycle day/phase.
What you can do
If you should take an AMH test and find that your level is low, do not lose heart! Your AMH level is just one piece in a complex jigsaw puzzle. Your best course of action is to discuss matters with your infertility specialist. Ask your doctor how you can protect your egg count and health, as well as discuss the best possible solution to your problem. For example, DHEA supplementation and well-managed IVF protocols have been shown to be effective in improving IVF pregnancy rates in women with low AMH. Maintain a positive outlook and don’t give up on your dreams of having a baby!
Can IVF bring on early menopause?
One of the most common question patients like to ask about IVF is that whether the treatment itself will bring on Menopause earlier. This is probably by far one of the greatest myths about IVF which we would like to clarify.
A woman’s ovaries contain immature eggs sacs known as follicles, which have the potential of developing into mature eggs. However, most of these follicles will be lost without having fulfilled their purpose.
Women are born with millions of eggs in their ovaries. These eggs are quiescent in the ovaries until the women reach the age of menarche (when they get their first menses). At that time, the eggs in the ovaries started to come up after hibernating for 10-16 years. This is due to a pulsatile release of hormones from the organs below our brain called hypothalamus and pituitary. So, at the start of our menses, our ovaries will recruit around 10-20 eggs at one go. However, after the menses, our body will only choose one egg to grow. The rest of the eggs will regress and die off. With the help of our hormones, the particular ‘chosen’ egg with grow to a certain size and maturity, and then ovulation will occur. Hence, we only release one mature egg every menstrual cycle.
But of these many follicles, only one of them will become dominant and mature. The others that do not get a chance to mature and release an egg, will simply disintegrate and be lost in a natural process called atresia. The loss of these follicles during each menstrual cycle means that several undeveloped eggs are also lost.
Therefore, throughout a woman’s reproductive life, her ovaries will release only around 400 eggs, despite being born with millions of eggs. So basically, we ‘wasted’ around 12-20 each menstrual cycle, until the day when we reach menopause, whereby there is NO eggs in our ovaries
So if a woman can naturally produce only one egg per menstrual cycle? How do IVF specialists harvest several eggs at once?
For a woman who is undergoing an IVF treatment, the use of injectable fertility drugs (hormonal drugs) will stimulate her ovaries to overcome the natural tendency of choosing one dominant egg and ‘wasting’ other eggs produced during this particular cycle. In this scenario, the hormonal injections will stimulate all the eggs recruited during this particular cycle to grow simultaneously. Once these eggs reached a certain size and maturity, they are being harvested during an egg retrieval procedure
When a woman undergoes IVF, she will be prescribed with injections containing FSH. The amount given will be several times higher than what her body would naturally produce. This high amount of FSH will stimulate a lot more follicles than usual and help more of them to mature into eggs. An important thing to understand is that FSH will only act on the follicles that a woman’s body will naturally produce each month. Therefore, there is no depletion of the overall egg supply. And when those eggs are harvested during an IVF treatment, they have actually been spared from atresia that would have occurred during that menstrual cycle.
It is also important to note, that whether or not they undergo IVF, women who struggle with infertility are usually already at risk of having poor ovarian reserve and reaching early menopause. One of the tests that can be used to detect low ovarian reserve is the Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) blood test. Egg reserves and AMH levels usually decline with age and can be affected by environmental factors such as cancer treatment or ovarian surgery, as well as inherited genetic causes, endometriosis, tumors, immunological conditions and high body mass index.
With that in mind, studies conducted by research teams around the world, including the British Fertility Society, Queensland University, Australia, and Cornell University, US have confirmed that IVF, even with multiple cycles, does not lead to egg depletion nor early menopause.
Having studied hundreds of IVF patients through the years, these researchers have concluded that IVF does not affect the timing or severity of menopause symptoms. In fact, many IVF patients reach menopause at the average age of just over 50, which is comparable to most national averages and closely resemble that of their own mothers’. The studies also found that most respondents had given birth to at least one child as a result of IVF.
Dr Helena Spoke against Child Marriage & Advocated for Women’s Right on TV2, ‘What Say You Programme’