Infertility Challenges: Treatments & Health Implications

Author: Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP


The increase in the use of fertility-enhancing drugs has led to new health challenges caused by medication side effects and multiple births.
One in 6 couples has trouble conceiving.1,2 The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) recommends that couples who have trouble conceiving seek treatment after 1 year, and further advises couples 35 years or older to seek treatment after just 6 months of unprotected intercourse.3 Consequently, the use of fertility-enhancing drugs has increased exponentially over the last 3 decades. With this increase has come a new set of problems and challenges.

Conception

Causes of infertility can be identified in 70% of cases. Infertility specialists categorize problems as follows4: Although these are the basic causes of infertility, contributing factors increase the likelihood of infertility. A significant factor is the fact that 20% of women wait until 35 years or older to start a family. Contributing dynamics include easy access to contraception since the 1960s, more women in the workforce, later marriage, high divorce rates, and delay until financially stability is achieved. Additionally, many women are unaware that fertility declines beginning in their late 20s (see Table 1). Sadly, pregnancy is then difficult when they are finally ready.5-8

Fertility specialists assess ovarian reserve in women using serum levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and estradiol, an indicator of age-related fertility potential. Elevated FSH indicates a lower chance of pregnancy.9

The Solutions
Fertility clinics use several methods to help infertile couples become pregnant. The most common, intrauterine insemination, begins by having the woman take fertility drugs (see Table 2) to stimulate superovulation. At a carefully selected time, the physician inserts sperm into the uterus.11

In vitro fertilization (IVF), a different method costing about $12,000 per cycle, uses the woman’ s eggs (removed through the vagina with an ultrasound-guided needle, often after the use of ovarian stimulation drugs) and the man’s sperm to allow fertilization in the laboratory. Several or many embryos may result. The physician implants the resultant embryos—the number implanted is a judgment call—in the women's uterus. IVF risks include significant side effects from drugs, egg retrieval–related problems like injury to organs near the ovaries, ovarian bleeding, and pelvic infection. Additionally, the risk of multiple fetuses can cause premature labor or delivery, maternal hemorrhage, cesarean delivery, hypertension, and gestational diabetes.12


Multiple Births

Spontaneous pregnancies have a 1 in 90 chance of resulting in twins, and a very small chance of triplets or quadruplets. In 1966, physicians performed 64,481 IVF procedures in 330 clinics. In 1971, 29 of 100,000 live-born children were triplets or more. US triplet birth rates peaked in 1998, when 193.5 children per 100,000 live births were triplets or more. The triplet rate has since declined, but the twin rate has escalated. In 2009, physicians performed 134,260 IVF procedures in 483 clinics. Competition in this $1-billion industry is fierce, driving physicians to implant multiple embryos to ensure success. With no regulation, little insurance coverage, demanding patients, and poor patient education about the financial and emotional risks, multiple implants and births continue.13,15-18

The Concerns

Infants born as multiples are almost always premature, and have higher rates of low birth weight, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, and birth defects. Twins are 7 times—and triplets 20 times—more likely than singletons to die within a month of birth. A twin birth is 16 times more expensive than a singleton birth, and triplet or higher-order multiple birth can cost several hundred thousand dollars. Twins usually survive but are hospitalized twice as long as singletons, and have much higher medical costs over their first 5 years. After birth, the US health system picks up the tab, creating higher insurance premiums, hospital fees, and taxes to cover the treatment, education, and care of children with medical problems.13,15-19

When multiple embryos become viable fetuses and threaten the life of the mother or child, fertility specialists usually recommend selective reduction. It improves the chances that at least some of the children will be born healthy, and is usually performed between weeks 9 and 12 of gestation. One-third of infertile couples refuse selective reduction on religious or ethical grounds.20-22

Final Thought

Legislators and professional organizations encourage fertility doctors to reduce multiple births. The ASRM recommends transferring 1 embryo for women under the age of 35 years (and no more than 2, except in extraordinary circumstances), and a maximum of 5 for older women.23 Pharmacists who work with couples hoping to solve infertility issues using IVF should make sure they are fully aware of its risks and benefits.


Ms. Wick is a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy and a freelance writer from Virginia.

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