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#YouAreNotAlone National Fertility Awareness Week makes headlines

Fertility Network’s National Fertility Awareness Week 1-5 Nov 2021 made headlines this year with a series of revealing surveys which included assessing the impact of COVID on fertility patients and treatment and the extent of the IVF postcode lottery in England.

The charity’s survey of nearly 400 patients explored the devastating impact of the COVID pandemic on those waiting for fertility treatment. A majority of respondents (58%) had experienced delays in accessing treatment, and a quarter had not been able to access emotional support or counselling. Many said counselling was not mentioned at all, despite this being a requirement for licensed fertility clinics, while others faced long waiting lists to see counsellors.

Patients also reported widespread delays in diagnostic testing, including blood tests and semen analysis and a range of surgical procedures from laparoscopy to surgical sperm retrieval. Delays ranged from months to more than two years. Many patients had to repeat tests which were out of date by the time they were able to access treatment, and reported appointments being repeatedly cancelled. 

The charity’s survey highlighted how male partners were often unable to attend fertility appointments, which meant patients reported having to go through miscarriages and receive bad news alone. Fertility appointments were often carried out over the phone, which some found particularly challenging given the sensitive nature of the problem.

Comments from respondents included:

‘It is a real possibility we won’t be able to have children now because of the delay.’

‘One of the most stressful times in my life. I felt like my world had crashed around me.’

‘Our first appointment with our clinic was in September 2019. We still haven’t started treatment yet.’

‘I was only allowed to appointments on my own. When I was given bad news, this was incredibly difficult and still impacts me now.’ 

An absolute postcode lottery

Fertility Network’s audit of England’s 106 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) exposed that all of the CCGs rationing access to NHS-funded fertility treatment in some manner either by introducing arbitrary, non-clinical criteria or by redefining what constitutes an IVF cycle. 

The audit paints a stark and damning picture of fertility care: 

• the majority of CCGs (89.9%) don’t offer the recommended three full IVF cycles to clinically eligible women under 40; 

• the majority of CCGs (72.4%) don’t offer the recommended one full IVF cycle to clinically eligible women aged between 40-42; 

• one in five CCGs (20.7%) have redefined what an IVF cycle constitutes and offer partial or reduced cycles instead of full IVF cycles where all fresh and frozen viable embryos are transferred; 

• over 90% of CCGs deny help if an infertile individual’s partner has a child from a previous relationship; 

• approaching one in four CCGs (23.3%) have introduced additional age hurdles for women, with six CCGs refusing to offer help to women over 35; 

• over two-thirds of CCGs (69%) refuse to treat single women; and 

• over a quarter of CCGs (26.6%) deny access to same-sex couples. Of the CCGs who do offer fertility treatment to same-sex couples, the majority withhold treatment until couples have proved their infertility by paying privately for six or 12 rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI).

Commenting on the week, Gwenda Burns, Chief Executive of Fertility Network said: ‘Not being able to have the family you yearn for can be an incredibly isolating experience. Far too often people struggle in silence with fertility issues but together – sharing stories and experiences – we can change perceptions, signpost support and raise funds to help others. This week is a chance to challenge the taboos and myths around infertility, raise awareness of the devastating physical, emotional and social impact fertility problems wreak and show the 3.5 million people experiencing fertility struggles in the UK that #YouAreNotAlone.’