Cash and sperm shortages threaten UK fertility services
Dr Kirsty Horsey
Progress Educational Trust09 June 2006
The UK's North Lincolnshire Primary Care Trust (PCT) has said that no new couples will be referred for IVF treatment until at least next April. It has decided to suspend the provision of fertility treatment services in order to save money - it is estimated that the move will save the PCT about ?90,000. David Fullard, director of corporate affairs at the trust, said that if it took no action it would face a deficit of ?18 million. He added that the trust needs to save money and can do so by putting temporary restrictions on a range of treatments for non-life threatening conditions, including IVF.
Mr Fullard said that any couples who had already received treatment would continue to receive care, but that any new referrals would be deferred for a year. This could affect 15-20 couples, he added. In response, Clare Brown, chair of the National Infertility Awareness Campaign (NIAC), said that the decision was 'devastating' for couples awaiting treatment, adding that 'infertility is the only illness to be targeted by cuts and we would urge the PCT to reassess its decision'.
In April it was revealed that only 40 per cent of the nation's PCTs were offering National Health Service (NHS)-funded IVF treatment, a year after every PCT was meant to offer all eligible couples at least one free cycle. It was also found that many PCTs were denying or heavily restricting access to IVF. Health ministers in the UK had recommended that all health authorities should follow guidance issued by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE recommended, in February 2004, that three cycles of IVF should be offered to all infertile couples, subject to certain clinical criteria, to end the 'postcode lottery' of provision. Shortly afterwards, the then health secretary, Sir John Reid, announced that all infertile couples where the woman was aged between 23 and 39, and fitting certain other additional criteria, should be given just one free cycle of IVF on the NHS from April 2005, with a view to increasing provision further in time. Clare Brown said that NIAC urges 'the Government to act now to reassure patients across the country that they will not be denied access to the treatment they have been promised'.
Meanwhile, the provision of fertility services in Scotland has been hit by the closure of a clinic in Aberdeen. It says that it has had to close because of a shortage of sperm donors and that this can probably be attributed to the removal of anonymity from donors. Following a change to the law that came into force on 1 April 2005, people conceived using donated egg, sperm or embryos in the UK will be able to ask for identifying information about the donor when they reach the age of 18. More than 20 patients being treated at the clinic have been told that their treatment cannot continue and no new patients are being accepted. Another Scottish hospital, in Dundee, has already announced that it may not take new patients. Earlier this month, the Sunday Times reported that there is currently only one 'active' sperm donor in the whole of Scotland 'due to recent changes in the law removing the right to anonymity'.
Sandra Kant, a spokesperson for the Aberdeen clinic, said that the staff 'never anticipated having to close', even after the new law was introduced. 'Patients are very upset', she said, adding 'it's bad enough having to be put on a waiting list, but it's devastating for the patients already receiving treatment'. Sheena Young, from Infertility Network UK, described the situation in Scotland as 'getting worse by the day'. 'By the end of this year I can quite imagine a situation where there will be not one single NHS clinic in Scotland providing this treatment', she added.
Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.