Posted on June 24, 2005

Britain’s Fertility Timebomb

Maxine Frith, Independent (London), June 21

Britain is facing an infertility crisis, with the number of couples who experience problems conceiving expected to double within the next 10 years.

A leading fertility expert warned yesterday that, by 2015, one in three couples may need IVF treatment or similar fertility procedures. The low success rates of such treatments means soaring numbers will be left childless. Professor Bill Ledger predicted a looming “infertility timebomb”, with thousands of couples forced to go through physically and mentally draining treatment, at a cost of millions of pounds to the NHS each year.

He blamed the soaring rates of fertility problems on modern lifestyle factors such as obesity, women delaying starting a family, falling sperm counts among men and rising rates of sexually transmitted infections, particularly chlamydia. Smoking is also a main factor in infertility in men and women. Professor Ledger, of the University of Sheffield, called for the Government to recognise infertility as a “disease”.

Patient groups responded by saying an education campaign was needed to warn young men and women of the infertility risks associated with problems such as obesity, as well as highlighting the fact that IVF treatment did not carry a guarantee of success.

One in seven couples has problems conceiving, but Professor Ledger believes that will rise.

Fertility treatment still only has a 23 per cent success rate on average and costs about £5,000 a cycle. In addition, the NHS could be forced to spend millions of pounds a year providing fertility procedures.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility treatment in the UK, has recommended all couples needing help should have a minimum of one IVF cycle on the NHS and ideally should receive two or three before being forced to pay.

Britain’s level of obesity, particularly among young girls, is becoming an increasing cause for concern. Figures show 13.7 per cent of all two to 10-year-olds are defined as clinically obese, rising to 16.5 per cent of children aged eight to 10.

Women who are extremely overweight have trouble ovulating and are less likely to conceive naturally. Women who are overweight are also at increased risk of polycystic ovary syndrome, another cause of infertility.

The sexually-transmitted infection chlamydia is also one of the leading causes of infertility among young women and has seen increases in recent years.

One in eight men and one in 10 women in the UK has the infection, which shows no symptoms so many people have no idea that they are infected. Professor Ledger said: “There will be a 10-year time lag in some of these factors because women who have chlamydia do not even know they have it until they come to have children — there is your time-bomb straight away.”

He also pointed to a general and long-term decline in male fertility, at the same time as many women are delaying motherhood until their late 30s or early 40s.

He criticised workplace policies which, he said, made it hard for younger women to make the decision to have children at a younger age. “If we prevent women having children early because we make it so difficult for them to take a break from their careers, we are making a rod for our own backs,” he said.

“To let women come out of work for a year or so and have their children properly looked after is part of a civilised society that I think we should aspire to.”

He pointed to France, which has seen a reduction of the number of older women seeking fertility treatment after it began offering tax breaks to younger women who took time off work when they had children.

Clare Brown, chief executive of the National Infertility Network, said: “I don’t think people are really aware of all the things that can affect their fertility, or of what having fertility treatment means. The success rates are still not great — just because you have treatment does not mean that you are guaranteed a baby.

“The whole process is mentally and physically exhausting. It can be upsetting and you still do not end up with a child.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said it was “committed to improving the health of the nation, reducing obesity, promoting healthy living and tackling sexually transmitted infections. That includes introducing a new target to halt the year-on-year rise in obesity among children under 11 by 2010.

“We realise chlamydia is a serious infection that can lead to fertility problems, that is why we have taken action to tackle it.”