Imagine if you’d been trying for a baby for years, had finally begun IVF treatment and then suddenly, it’s all called off indefinitely.
This is the situation for women who are going through fertility treatment which has now been impacted by the coronavirus with many clinics closing down whilst others are asking patients to decide for themselves.
Risks of the virus to pregnant women remains unclear (pregnant women are currently told by the government to take particular care to minimise social contact) but a report by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) says all couples who are considering fertility treatment “should avoid becoming pregnant at this time” despite the fact there is “no strong evidence of any negative effects of Covid-19 infection on pregnancies”.
Stylist spoke three women who had been affected by the situation and explored why there is not clearer guidance from the UK’s regulatory body, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Caroline, 32, from Manchester, was told her cycle was cancelled three weeks into a gruelling routine of daily injections. “I was three weeks in to my fourth IVF cycle so that’s three weeks of injections and menopausal symptoms. I was due to have a scan yesterday to confirm that I can start my next lot if medication ready for transfer in just over two weeks.
Unfortunately due to coronavirus it was cancelled 15 minutes before my appointment. We weren’t surprised as I knew lots of cycles were being cancelled but it is still really upsetting when you have put your body through so much and it’s the unknown of how long we will actually wait to start again.
“I understand that it had to be done but I think Boris Johnson realising the statement that pregnant women should self-isolate has ultimately made the decision for fertility centres to close and cancel most treatments.”
Ellie, 35 from London, said: “I found out yesterday my second cycle had been cancelled indefinitely. I found out when I called the clinic yesterday to check if I should start on the contraceptive pill to regulate my cycle, I’d been due to start it in two days, and then start the cycle in a few weeks. The receptionist sounded anxious and said ‘We’ve stopped all treatment and we don’t when we’ll be restarting. We’ll be in touch in the future but we don’t know when.’
“I thought my husband was being an idiot when he asked the clinic if coronavirus could affect things a few weeks ago. We were assured it should be fine but then it was a completely different world then.
“I’d actually quit my job earlier to concentrate on the IVF. Also I’d been referred to IVF because I’m possibly facing early menopause, so putting off treatment, when time is against you, feels excruciating.”
Liz, 38, from Brighton, finished her fourth cycle of IVF earlier this week. She found the two-week wait (after the embryo transfer and before the pregnancy test) during a time of global pandemic extremely upsetting.
“I was going to get the train every day to my clinic – we started our cycle at the end of February and at that time things were just starting to break in Europe, luckily my husband wasn’t working so we decided to drive so we weren’t exposing ourselves…It has been really difficult.
“IVF is a real anxiety-inducing process at the best of times and this has massively heightened this. For weeks anyone who is anywhere in their cycle is really worried about how getting ill or sick could affect their chances of success, this [virus] has elevated that to a ridiculous level.”
Liz’s centre appears to be one of the few which has continued to treat patients. “They are saying we are still running and have said to patients, it’s up to you and if you want to continue then we will support you. From what I know, most other clinics are suspending treatment, even if you’ve had eggs collected they’re not transferring. That would have led to a failed cycle for us because our embryos were never good quality enough to freeze and that would have been devastating.”
She believes there needs to be stronger guidance from the HFEA. “There has been no leadership from them. We need clarity.”
Currently the HFEA’s website says it is “closely monitoring” the situation but that “our advice to clinics remains to refer to UK professional guidance when making decisions about whether to offer treatment”.
An HFEA spokesperson told Stylist: “We are aware that many NHS fertility clinics are stopping treatments as staff become unwell or are redeployed to help in the fight against coronavirus in their hospital. These decisions are taken locally by individual Trusts.
“We expect clinics to have their own business continuity plans in place to ensure that safe staffing levels are maintained.
“The situation is developing very quickly, and we have asked clinics to inform their inspector about any changes to treatment provision. We recognise that stopping fertility treatment will be very distressing to some patients but these are necessary extraordinary measures in extraordinary times.”
Stylist also approached NHS England for a comment.