State funding for IVF will give some hope to desperate couples
It's been a long time coming, but finally it looks as though fertility treatments for couples struggling to conceive naturally will finally be publicly funded.
This is welcome news indeed. For many couples, the cost of IVF is prohibitive. Currently only available at private clinics, a cycle of IVF costs from €4,500 upwards.
To date, Ireland is only one of three countries in the EU where fertility treatments like IVF are still not funded by the State.
I have a friend who, last year, travelled to a fertility clinic in Prague for IVF treatment because it was less expensive than having IVF here in Ireland. Even with the added cost of flights and accommodation, it was still a lot cheaper. She came back pregnant with twins.
The pressure that the cost of IVF here in Ireland was putting on desperate couples was truly awful.
Thankfully this is about to change and couples will no longer have to travel abroad for cheaper IVF. Health Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed it was very important that the Department of Health considers how best to provide public funding for fertility treatment in tandem with closing the current legislative gap in the area of healthcare.
"Fertility treatments should be funded in such a way that not only maximises efficiency but which ensures equity of access as well," he said.
The proposal has been widely welcomed by Irish fertility experts.
Dr Wingfield, clinical director at Merrion Fertility Clinic, is delighted to see some commitment on funding: "We see couples every day in the public infertility clinic in Holles Street who are prevented from having appropriate treatment purely due to financial constraints."
Dr David Walsh, medical director of the Sims Institute, is also pleased to see progress in the area of funding for IVF, but he is cautious about the upcoming election and possible change of health minister.
"On the eve of our upcoming election, we as fertility doctors welcome the outgoing minister's proposal to provide IVF with direct public funding. We hope the incoming minister will have an equal desire and funding to match."
Dr Walsh is keen to point out the importance of discretion around the sensitive area of fertility treatment and hopes that any funded cycles will be carried out on a non-discriminatory basis, as happens in the UK, where couples opt to have IVF in a clinic of their choice.
"This means that when attending for treatment no one can tell whether a couple's treatment is self-funded or provided by the State. This removes any potential stigma and works very well in Britain."
Infertility is a huge issue in the modern world, with so many couples settling down much later in life to have children. Not being able to conceive naturally is the cause of acute pain and grief for so many couples. It has broken many a strong marriage and left the childless couple crushed in its wake.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines infertility as a disease. Like many other medical conditions, infertility can be caused by infection, surgery, hormone disturbances, drug treatments, cancer or birth defects. However, many cases are simply unexplained.
The primal craving to have a baby is incredibly strong and not being able to conceive can have a truly devastating effect on both physical and mental health.
Dr Wingfield says: "Some 30-40pc of those with fertility problems suffer clinical depression and anxiety because of their inability to have children. Other studies show fertility patients have similar stress levels to those with cancer. Infertility is a 'disease' and those afflicted need treatment."
WHO statistics for Ireland show that one in five people now have fertility issues. A recent EU study showed that Irish mothers are the oldest in Europe and there are more first-time mothers aged 40, or over, here than in any other EU country.
The curse of constantly being busy and the drive to have a successful career and be financially secure is causing many couples to put having babies on the long finger.
Now in Ireland we are in serious trouble as the age of motherhood rises every year. With couples waiting until their late thirties/early forties to have children, IVF is being sought out by increasing numbers each year.
While the news that the first IVF cycle will now be funded by the State is very welcome, the average number of IVF treatments per couple is four.
Dr Walsh says he hopes that the Government will be able to fund more in the future: "In the UK, up to one-third of IVF cycles are funded by the State. Let us hope our next government is in a financial position to provide an equally substantial number and in a similarly non-discriminatory manner."
We have to hope that our Government's promise will stand firm. Worryingly, Poland's new government has said it is planning to end state funding for IVF treatment just two years after it was introduced, claiming it is too expensive.
The Polish state programme has so far led to the births of more than 3,000 children, with about 17,000 couples currently undergoing treatment.
It is very disheartening to hear that the new Polish government has done a U-turn on its IVF funding. We have to hope that whatever the election outcomes here, this measure promised by Mr Varadkar will stand firm, so that desperate couples can have a chance at becoming parents.