The funding of fertility treatment in the UK is among the lowest in Europe, according to a new study presented at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology's annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.
Lead author Dr Mark Connolly, from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, compared fertility policies across 23 European countries. The UK came third from the bottom on a scale devised by the authors to indicate the level of public funding for IVF treatment and had one of the lowest number of 'assisted reproduction technology' cycles per million people.
Only Russia and Ireland offered lower levels of public funding, whereas Belgium, France, Slovenia, Montenegro and Italy had the most generous policies. In Belgium, for example, there were almost 2,500 cycles per million people, compared with 825 cycles in the UK.
Dr Connolly said 'there was a highly significant relationship between high levels of public reimbursement and high levels of utilisation'.
'If one considers medical need is similar across countries then the data here suggest a great unmet need in those countries with limited reimbursement', he added.
Guidance issued by the UK's National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence, which has published a draft update of the guideline for consultation, states that PCTs should offer infertile women from 23 to 39 years old up to three cycles of IVF treatment. Each cycle costs around £3,000 when funded privately.
Nevertheless, the final decision about the level of IVF funding is made by individual PCTs. Dr Connolly said 'most English PCTs were feeble in their ability at providing IVF'.
Many couples are not able to access IVF because of funding decisions taken by their PCT or health board. 'It is totally unacceptable that many other European countries have better service provision for infertility patients than the UK, where IVF was pioneered', said Clare Lewis-Jones from the National Infertility Awareness Campaign.
She added: 'Infertility treatment has for too long been seen as a low priority, failing the one in six couples who live with the devastating impact this illness has on their lives'.
Around 13,000 babies are born every year in the UK with the help of IVF and ICSI techniques. However, this new study shows that number could be up to three times higher, if UK policies matched those of the most generous countries.