Boom in births for couples taking test-tube option

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Test-tube births increased 25 per cent last year as success rates for the technique rose to their highest level.

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, reports on the booming demand for in-vitro fertilisation and the pressures it places on couples desperate for children.

The 20,000th test-tube birth was achieved in Britain last year as patients flocked in increasing numbers for the treatment that costs around pounds 2,000 per attempt and still has a less than one-in-six chance of success.

Figures published yesterday by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in its annual report show over 5,500 live births were achieved in the 15 months to last March from almost 37,000 treatment cycles, a success rate of 15 per cent.

That rate, the highest yet, is 1.2 per cent up on the success rate in 1994 and almost double the 8.6 per cent achieved a decade ago in 1985.

However, it is still well below the average rate of 25 per cent per month for couples conceiving naturally.

In 1995, the latest full year for which figures are available, 22,587 patients were treated, a six-fold increase compared with the 3,717 in 1985.

When Steptoe and Edwards achieved the first successful birth in 1978 the world was shocked at the idea that life could be started in a test- tube. Now it is an accepted medical treatment for infertility.

Ruth Deech, chairman of the authority which licenses the clinics, said: "In-vitro fertilisation originated in the UK and we remain one of the few countries in the world which regulates such treatments via a statutory governmental body. As the number of couples seeking such treatment rises rapidly, they can be reassured that they will receive a high standard of care and medical expertise, wherever in the country they are treated."

However, a spokesman confirmed that success rates vary widely, with some clinics performing at least twice as well as others. Figures on individual clinics' success rates are to be published in a guide for patients next month.

The use of a new technique for treating sub-fertile men by injecting a single sperm into the egg increased four-fold last year, reducing the need for donated sperm.

The technique, known as ICSI (Intra Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection), was introduced four years ago and 1,500 babies have been born so far.

Success rates have risen dramatically from the initial 4.6 per cent to 19.6 per cent as the skill of practitioners has improved.

Special competency assessment has been introduced for clinics offering the treatment to ensure high standards, the authority said.

Almost a third of births in the past 15 months were of twins, triplets or quadruplets, which carry an increased risk of complications and can impose emotional and financial pressure on the parents.

Mrs Deech said that the authority would keep the multiple birth rate, the highest yet seen for IVF, under "active consideration".

She said: "Multiple births can be the source of great stress and anxiety for parents. People undergoing IVF treatment should be aware that, as the technique becomes more successful, so the risk of a multiple birth increases."