IVF treatments seeing pandemic boost in demand: expert

During the pandemic, more women in Canada underwent fertility treatments to get pregnant and start families, a journey that one Edmonton family is shedding some light on.

The Pacific Centre for Reproductive Medicine (PCRM), which has three main clinics, with two in B.C. and one in Alberta, reported a 76 per cent rise in the number of in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures compared to pre-pandemic demand.

Other assisted reproductive procedures saw a jump in demand during the pandemic, including a 70 per cent rise in egg freezing, and a 150 per cent increase for preimplantation genetic testing services, the centre says.

Dr. Caitlin Dunne, PCRM co-director and University of British Columbia clinical associate professor in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, told CTV News Edmonton that the pandemic offered a reset for many couples or women.

“COVID has solidified their desire to have a family,” Dunne said. “Pre-COVID many of us were running around, were very, very busy, travelling or wrapped up in work.

“Then, all of a sudden, during the lockdown, you have a chance to really reflect,” she added. “What I’m hearing from patients is that they discovered how important having a family was to them.”

The pandemic surge is a continuation of other factors driving women to consider using IVF or egg freezing treatments, Dunne said.

“There are a number of factors driving the increase in demand for fertility services,” Dunne said. “One of the largest ones is that women are choosing to have children later in life.”

“2010 was the first time where more women in their 30s were having children than in their 20s,” she said. “The majority of births (now) are happening to women in their 30s.”

IVF fertilizes eggs with sperm in a lab before one or more embryos are transferred into the uterus, while egg freezing preserves them to be used in the future.

“(Many) have identified that having a family in the future is important to them, but now is not exactly the right time,” Dunne said.

“People are becoming more aware of their bodies and more educated about the effect of age on the ovaries,” she added. “I think they are seeking out egg freezing as a way to preserve their fertility while the eggs are at their prime so that they might have a better chance of building a family in the future.”

An IVF treatment can take several months, with no guaranteed result of pregnancy being achieved. According to the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, in 2018, the latest year where there is data, 16,852 IVF cycles were performed. Out of those cycles, 2,438 resulted in pregnancy.

‘THE FERTILITY JOURNEY’

After a severe endometriosis diagnosis, Katrina McManus had a “miracle baby” five years ago using artificial insemination and fertility treatments.

“We started trying for a second (child) when my daughter Mylah was about a year old,” McManus told CTV News Edmonton. “It took a while to have her, so we thought we would start the fertility journey as soon as possible.”

McManus is now eight weeks pregnant after four attempts, including an ectopic pregnancy and miscarriages.

“This is the farthest I’ve been in IVF,” she said. “Still very cautious, obviously, because I’ve miscarried many times in the past.

“The baby has a heartbeat. It’s been a rough pregnancy, a couple of scares, but baby is strong and still holding on.”

McManus decided to document her journey on social media to help other families considering IVF learn about the process.

“I did not understand what IVF was when we were going into it, and that’s why I decided to share so openly about IVF,” she said. “There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about IVF. They just think they extract your eggs, and then they put it back in you once the embryo grows, but there’s a lot more.

“You’re constantly at the fertility clinic,” she added. “You’re doing ultrasounds at 7 a.m. multiple times a week to make sure your eggs are growing. Then you have to do egg retrieval, which is under anesthesia, and you have to take a couple of days off to recover.”

Dunne says for too long, there have been societal stigmas when discussing fertility options.

“Particularly topics like fertility and miscarriage have been shrouded in taboo,” she said. “There is a shame and stigma associated with those diagnoses. I don’t think there should be, but unfortunately, it does seem like that’s the case in society.

“Infertility is a medical disease; it’s a diagnosis that’s certainly worthy of attention and treatment.”

For anyone considering getting pregnant or planning for a future family, Dunne recommended discussing options with their gynecologist or fertility clinic.

“Just to get a sense of where you are at and then work through what is the best treatment for you, for your goals, and for your family,” she said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to everybody.”

The journey takes a massive toll, McManus said.

“It’s definitely mentally and physically draining, if not also financially as well, because you’re financially invested in this.”

The treatment has cost approximately $30,000, McManus said. Insemination was around $400 and then another few hundred dollars for medication.

“(My husband Justin and I) talked about it that this would be our last IVF cycle,” McManus said. “My body has just been through much.”

None of IVF is covered in Alberta, leaving patients to foot the bill. Ontario, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island partly cover the procedure with public funds, while New Brunswick and Manitoba offer a tax credit and one-time fertility grant.

One of the best supports is hearing from other women going through the same journey, McManus shared.

“There’s a few of us that are pregnant around the same time so we are following each other’s journey,” she said. “The IVF community is a very strong and special community.”

McManus and her husband Justin remain hopeful that they’ll have another miracle.

“We are very hopeful. It will be a Christmas baby. I keep saying hopefully it’ll be our Christmas present.”

With files from The Canadian Press