The average age of women seeking fertility help in Australia has increased from 35.2 years old in 2002 to 35.6 years old in 2006, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). The report showed that record numbers of women over 40 were undergoing fertility treatment - rising from 14.3 per cent in 2002 to 16.2 per cent in 2006 - despite those over 45 having only a two per cent chance of becoming pregnant.
The figures may echo a growing trend in the number of couples delaying parenthood, says Peter Illingworth, a Sydney- based doctor and president of the Fertility Society of Australia .'The vast majority of couples we see who are over 40, for example, have only just met', he told the Bloomberg Press. 'It's not that they have made a conscious decision to do it in their 40s, it's that the opportunity to have children has only just arisen later on in a woman's life', he added.
The report highlighted a 4.6 per cent increase in the number of couples undergoing Assisted Reproduction Techniques (ART), rising from 46,481 in 2002 to 48,706 in 2006. In total 10,522 babies were born in Australia and New Zealand as a result of ART in 2006, with numbers rising at an average rate of 5 per cent per year between 2002 and 2006. Of these, 78 per cent were singleton births, reflecting the recent drive to make single embryo transfer (SET) the policy of all fertility clinics.
Professor Michael Chapman, Head of Women's and Children's Health at the University of New South Wales in Sydney told The Age that fewer women than ever were having multiple births, with fewer than one per cent of women having more than two babies.
'The multiple pregnancy rate, which six or seven years ago was in the 20 per cent range, is now down to 11 per cent', he said, adding: 'It's virtually halved from its peak and that's good for the parents, it's good for society, because many of them end up in special care units and with long-term medical problems'.
The aim of SET policy is to avoid the risks associated with multiple births, such as premature birth, low birth weight, an increased risk of death in the first week and an increased risk of cerebral palsy around four times that for singleton births. However, SET is not always considered the best policy. For example, some experts have criticised the recent decision to make SET part of UK fertility guidelines, pointing to the low success rates of IVF, the lack of state provision on the NHS and the high private fees.