x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Gift of life: UAE benefits from 35 years of IVF

The country’s first fertility centre opened in Dubai in 1991, and that clinic alone has helped more than 5,000 babies be born.

ABU DHABI // As 35 years of IVF is marked across the globe, fertility experts say the breakthrough has brought hope to thousands of childless couples in the UAE.

Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, was born in Oldham, England, on July 25, 1978, with the pioneering conception successfully carried out by gynaecologist Patrick Steptoe and reproductive biologist Robert Edwards.

Since then 5.5 million babies worldwide have been born, thanks to IVF.

In many parts of the world the idea of fertilising human eggs in a laboratory was controversial, but fertility expert Dr Pankaj Shrivastav, 55, never felt this was the case in the UAE.

“I think it is because of the emphasis of family values and the importance of children to families here,” said Dr Shrivastav, who launched the UAE’s first IVF clinic, the Dubai Gynaecology and Fertility Centre (DGFC), in 1991.

“As long as it was in Sharia, it was acceptable.”

When DGFC opened, Dr Shrivastav said it “faced a busy backlog”, as thousands of desperate couples saw their first glimmer of hope.

“We saw in the region of 1,000 couples in the first year,” he said.

The centre was one of the first IVF clinics in the region, so couples travelled from Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and as far afield as Madagascar.

In its first 13 years, about 2,000 babies were born following fertility treatment at DGFC.

In 2004, Dr Shrivastav launched the Conceive Gynaecology and Fertility Hospital in Sharjah, which has helped a further 1,500 babies be conceived.

He said technology has changed enormously in the past 35 years.

The introduction of intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a vitro-fertilisation procedure in which sperm is injected directly into the egg, has meant that male fertility problems can also be treated.

Two of the world’s first surgical sperm retrieval techniques – percutaneous epididymal sperm aspiration (Pesa) and testicular sperm aspiration (Tesa) – were carried out in the UAE, Dr Shrivastav said.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which allows doctors to identify embryos that carry common genetic disorders such as thalassaemia before they are implanted, was a big step in fertility treatment, he added.

PGD can rule out chromosomal abnormalities and increase the chances of a successful pregnancy.

Another thing that changed over the years was the feeling of shame some people associated with infertility, Dr Shrivastav said.

“There was some degree of embarrassment,” he said. “I remember people used to say to me, ‘is there a back door, can I come through the back door?’ But now, people are more blase. Socially it is a lot more acceptable.”

In its 35 years, IVF has become a global money-making business, but before the procedure there was “minimal hope” for infertile couples, said Dr Awatif Al Bahar, the assistant medical director at DGFC.

More than 5,000 babies have been born with the help of the Dubai clinic, in a country where the infertility rate is about 1.6 per cent of the population.

Dr Shrivastav said the biggest achievement in fertility over the past 35 years is the concept of IVF itself.

“The fact is, 45 to 50 years ago, it was absolutely unheard of,” he said. “But now we see embryos growing in front of our eyes. We can watch them grow and develop. It is a wonderful thing.”

IVF success rates have increased in the last 35 years, from 10 per cent to 50 per cent.

The next 35 years will see further advances, Dr Shrivastav said.

“I think we will see more women wanting to freeze their eggs,” he said. “There will be career women saying, ‘I haven’t found Mr Right, I am going to freeze my eggs.’

“I also think fertility preservation will happen in a bigger way, especially for cancer patients who face the possibility of becoming sterile through radiation.”

More options for male infertility is one area in which Dr Shrivastav would like to see developments.

“I hope treatment becomes available to improve men’s sperm quality. At present, we have nothing for this,” he said.

“We will probably expect to see more genetic screening of embryos, so you can put back the most normal embryo as possible. There are a lot of possibilities.”

jbell@thenational.ae