Recent years have seen an increase in the number of women freezing their eggs for future use, establishing a trend that can be seen across every state in Australia. Over this time clinics themselves have also made information regarding the processes behind egg freezing and IVF more accessible to the wider general public.
In the two years from 2016 to 2018, national Australian IVF clinics have seen a 48% increase in the number of women freezing their eggs. This incredible increase of nearly double that of previous years has been the result of a number of social and economic factors, as well as the increasing knowledge of the methods behind the process of freezing eggs.
What is egg-freezing?
Originally, freezing eggs was an option available for oncology patients who were about to undergo cancer treatment, designed to protect their chances of fertility in the future. However, over the last 20 years there has been an increased interest in egg freezing by the general population. Treatment is now available to anyone, regardless of health conditions or potential future fertility problems. As women have a finite number of eggs, which decreases dramatically after the age of 40, egg freezing has become popular for those choosing to start families later.
Frozen eggs can be stored for many years; in some cases, a pregnancy has even occurred after the eggs have been frozen for 14 years. When women are ready to use frozen eggs, the eggs are warmed, fertilised with sperm and then if an embryo develops it will be transferred to the woman’s uterus through IVF processes.
Why are so many women considering freezing their eggs?
In times gone by, the majority of women were married and had started a family by their twenties, with only 23% of the female population in 1991 having their first child over the age of 30. This figure has since increased to 48% by 2016. While the prime fertility age for most women being on average between the ages of 20 and 35, some women are not ready to become mothers at this age.
There are a number of reasons for this. Some women have not met the right person who they would like to start a family with, others have chosen to focus on careers and establish themselves in businesses which (depending on the individual) they feel leaves them little time for both dating and motherhood. Other women who would consider having children may have experienced a change in relationship status or the ending of a long-term relationship, and are re-assessing when they will meet someone new who they might want to have children with.
The process of freezing eggs
Women undergo a self-administered hormonal stimulation for 10 to 12 days which enables 6 to 15 eggs to mature. Stimulation comes in the form of an injection which can be done at home after instruction from the clinic. The only currently known side effect from the stimulation is cases of mild bloating.
The eggs themselves are then collected from the ovaries using a probe guided by ultrasound. This part of the procedure is carried out under light-to-general anaesthetic, with the patient usually allowed to go home one to two hours afterwards.
Once the eggs are in the laboratory, they are frozen through a procedure called vitrification. Vitrification involves the rapid freezing and extraction of all fluids to prevent damaging ice forming on the eggs. Once this is completed, the eggs can be stored for many years.
Pregnancy rate after freezing
Success depends on the quality of the egg at the time of freezing. The health of eggs can be negatively affected by:
- Age and individual genetic makeup.
- Smoking, poor diet and obesity.
- Chronic medical conditions (including diabetes and high blood pressure).
On average, for every 10 to 15 eggs that are frozen by someone under the age of 35, 1 pregnancy could be expected. For women 35 years old and under, 1 stimulation cycle (collection of 12-15 eggs) will produce between seven and nine eggs suitable for freezing and storage
- Approximately 80-90% of these eggs survive the warming process.
- Approximately 50-80% of those surviving eggs would fertilise.
- Approximately 80-90% of fertilised eggs develop into an embryo.
- 1 single embryo has a 20-30% chance of developing into a pregnancy.
A simple blood test can be done when a woman is in her thirties to assess her fertility before undergoing egg freezing. However, IVF Australia reminds us, don’t leave it too late!
Medicare and other government subsidies are available, but they will only pay for fertility treatment when there is a medical indication. Individual cycle costs vary according to circumstance as well as clinics across the country.
Mahsa Fatantoni of NewsDaily did an investigation into the costs of the procedure in 2018. Her figures indicate the following:
- Between 2016 and 2018 there was a 48% increase in the number of women freezing their eggs.
- In Melbourne clinics their patient numbers doubled in the space of two years.
- IVF Australia in 2018 cost $6885 per cycle of freezing.
- This did not cover the cost of the hormonal stimulation which can run into the $1000s.
- There is an additional $500 per year storage cost for the eggs
- The cost for thawing, fertilising and transplanting the eggs (IVF) is $3650.
These figures vary from clinic to clinic, with Melbourne IVF costing nearly $2000 more for the egg cycle than IVF Australia, but with a lower per year storage cost.
IVF Australia’s medical director, Associate Professor Peter Illingworth, says,
If women wish to freeze their eggs, they should regard it as a backup and not as the main plan.”
Dr Rozen of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says that it is not usually necessary for young women, particularly those in their early twenties, to freeze their eggs as they usually fall pregnant naturally.