Louise Brown, the world's first IVF baby, will next week celebrate her 30th birthday - but as parents and children born through IVF representing each year since Louise was born came together at Bourn Hall fertility clinic to mark the occasion, many commentators have pointed to the continued inadequate state provision for IVF in the very country that first pioneered the treatment.
Louise was born on 25 July 1978 at Oldham District and General Hospital after Robert Edwards and Patrick Steptoe performed IVF on her mother, Lesley. The news of the pregnancy generated a great deal of interest in the world media and Professor Edwards has told how Lesley even had to be hid in Patrick Steptoe's mother's house for her safety. 'We were concerned that she would lose the baby, the fetus, because the press were chasing Mrs Brown all over Bristol where she lived', he said. At the time, public attitudes towards IVF were mixed, with many opposing what they saw to be interfering with nature. 'The children at school used to ask questions like 'how did you fit in a test tube?' and things like that, but they could see I was normal, they could see I was the same as them', Louise told reporters last week.
Since then, around three and a half million women have undergone IVF worldwide with over 30,000 procedures being performed in Britain a year resulting in little over 11,000 births, accounting for 1.6 per cent of all births in the country. Yet despite the increase in the number of IVF procedures and births, Britain still lags behind some countries in Europe, such as Belgium and Denmark, where IVF accounts for around 3.5 per cent of all births. Fertility support groups point to the lack of progress made to improve success rates since 1978 which average at around only 15 per cent and - more critically - to a lack of provision for IVF on the NHS. Even though IVF is now considered to be standard treatment for infertility, reflecting how far attitudes have come, most trusts impose conditions on couples seeking publicly-funded IVF.
Only nine out of 151 PCTs in England are funding the recommended three cycles of IVF for infertile couples, according to the UK Department of Health. The latest figures reveal that despite guidance issued over four years ago, four trusts are still offering no IVF treatment at all, and 94 per cent are not providing the full three cycles recommended. Two-thirds of IVF procedures performed in the UK are private, where treatment can cost up to £8,000. Professor Edwards says that the NHS should do more for infertile couples. 'Every couple should be allowed to have three babies on the health service because this is the greatest gift that you can give any man or woman,' he said.
Although funding remains an issue, the technology surrounding IVF appears to be finally making further progress. Techniques such as metabolic profiling and PGS are being developed that may significantly improve success rates, researchers say. The techniques are yet to be introduced into widespread clinical use.