Canberra lockdown: Covid changes family plans and fertility treatments like IVF

Embryologist Casidhe Goldsworthy with the tanks which store frozen embryos, eggs, and sperm. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Embryologist Casidhe Goldsworthy with the tanks which store frozen embryos, eggs, and sperm. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Margaret McCarthy was all set to start her first cycle of IVF on August 9. She had taken the preparatory drugs and the treatment was lined up. She was medically and emotionally prepared.

But the ACT's lockdown then intervened. New fertility treatments were halted.

"It's pretty devastating," she said. "We've been trying for nearly two years, and we had pinned our hopes on IVF."

She said she understood why the treatment had been postponed but it's the uncertainty of not knowing exactly when it might now happen which is getting to her.

Her situation is just one of the ways the pandemic has shaken up the way Canberrans plan families and even the way they think about families.

As it's stretched into its second year with no obvious end in sight, more younger women have decided to get their eggs frozen as a kind of insurance so they can have children at some indeterminate time in the future, once the pandemic is over.

There's also been a rise in people seeking IVF, according to one of Canberra's fertility doctors.

"I think it's a combination of reasons," Dr Tween Low of Genea Canberra said.

"I think the pandemic and people being at home allows people to reflect on what's important.

"And people are no longer travelling so they have got the money for fertility treatment."

Embryo developing from the moment of conception. Video: Genea

Apart from the rising numbers, there is also a cultural change.

It used to be predominantly women in their late 30s and early 40s who were seeking IVF. They were often desperate and feeling that time had nearly run out.

But, according to IVF specialists, women in their early 30s are increasingly seeking treatment.

"We are now seeing a younger cohort, some in their 20s and early 30s. Freezing will allow you to open up options," Dr Low said. " Women are feeling more empowered to obtain what's best."

The company's Scientific Director agreed that numbers seeking fertility treatment were rising. "We've certainly seen an uptick from younger patients," Steven McArthur said.

"People are restricted in their movements so they are making decisions in terms of having children earlier," he said.

Thirty-five-year-old model, Kerry Doyle, had her eggs frozen because she was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2017. Her oncologist told her that cancer treatment could affect her fertility.

"You don't think so much about creating life when you are trying to save your own life," she said.

"But freezing my eggs felt like a form of empowerment."

Now that she has emerged from chemotherapy apparently clear of cancer, she is pleased she froze her eggs.

"I haven't limited myself. It's possible I might need them. It's a sense of control back in my life," she said.

The chances of an older woman conceiving and giving birth are much higher if the eggs are younger.

Younger women have more eggs and the quality is better so the chances of conception are higher.

The heightened interest in freezing eggs and in IVF hasn't suddenly happened. According to specialists, the rise has been gradual over the past five years but has accelerated markedly in the 18 months of the pandemic.

Kerry Doyle during her treatment for cancer. Picture: Supplied

Kerry Doyle during her treatment for cancer. Picture: Supplied

Lockdowns have given couples time to think and talk. They may also have broken some relationships so women are thinking about children but without an obvious father.

The stop-start nature of the lockdowns may also have increased anxiety about the future, according to Dr Peter Illingworth who practices in Canberra and who is the medical director of IVF Australia.

"What we have noticed is that when the Covid pandemic struck, there was a lot of anxiety. IVF was closed down and that provoked fear."

Dr Tween Low. Picture: Supplied

Dr Tween Low. Picture: Supplied

As the demand for fertility treatment rises, the technology is also improving rapidly.

Much more of the process of handling embryos and eggs is now done by machines because temperatures, for example, need to be exact (at minus 196 degrees). Changes in temperature need to controlled and machines can do that to minute degrees and exactly as needed.

Eggs are stored in minute drops of solution only a millionth of a litre in volume. There are now machines where the embryos can be constantly monitored from the very moment of conception until they are implanted in the would-be mother's womb.

This story Pandemic shakes up family plans and fertility treatment first appeared on The Canberra Times.