Couples struggling to conceive will celebrate the re-introduction of the ‘test tube baby’ programme at Avenues Clinic. In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) is the fertilisation of an egg by sperm outside the woman’s body. The eggs are removed from a woman’s body and brought together with a man’s sperm in a laboratory. When embryos start to form, one or two of them are then implanted into the woman’s womb. Development continues and excess embryos can be frozen for future implantation.
IVF started in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, but was halted after its pioneer, Dr Tony Robertson, briefly left the country. It is reported that 52 people, now adults, were conceived through Dr Robertson’s programme. The current team comprises Dr Robertson, Dr Tinovimba Mhlanga (both obstetricians and gynaecologists), and other scientists, embryologists and nursing sisters. Avenues Clinic has upgraded its facilities, adding a laboratory for the IVF procedure next to their theatre room so that the embryologist receives the eggs immediately to promote efficacy.
Six couples are currently undergoing IVF at Avenues and an accurate success rate will be released one year down the line. Success is not measured by the number of pregnancies after treatment but rather by the number of babies born alive.
“Our patients are currently on stimulation protocols which are drug regimens designed to stimulate the ovaries to produce multiple follicles (fluid filled cavities that contain eggs). The total cost for IVF including drugs, hospitalisation, gynaecologist, and embryologist is about $3,500,” says Dr Mhlanga.
Patients with unexplained infertility – mild endometriosis and mild male factor subfertility are offered intrauterine (inside the uterus) insemination which is a cheaper alternative. “We give the woman drugs to stimulate her ovaries then we follow up with a scan up to a point where she has a maximum of three but not less than one follicle. A trigger causes ovulation and exactly 36 hours afterwards we inseminate the man’s washed and concentrated semen into the uterus,” added Dr Mhlanga.
IVF takes about three to five weeks of treatment with the patient required to be at home most of the time. The woman is admitted for a day for oocyte (a cell that develops into an egg or ovum) retrieval and an hour for embryo transfer.
Couples struggling to conceive naturally are called sub-fertile. Infertility is when any form of conception is ruled out. Sub-fertile couples should be tested together, contrary to the belief that women are always the cause. Fertility problems can be caused by low sperm count, irregular menstrual cycles, fibroids, endometriosis, drug use, obesity, untreated STIs, pesticide exposure, smoking, and stress.
In the past, couples had been referred to India and South Africa for the treatment. The re-introduction of the local IVF programme is a welcome relief as it will significantly reduce the costs of IVF for local couples.