IVF couples forced to travel abroad by shortage of donors

COUPLES desperate for a baby are being forced abroad due to a lack of sperm and egg donors in the UK, researchers say.

A new study has found the most popular destinations for treatment are Spain and the Czech Republic, followed by the United States.

Major reasons for seeking fertility treatment abroad are a lack of donors in the UK, long waiting times for NHS treatment, high costs and a "postcode lottery" in accessing IVF.

Some couples want the chance to have two embryos transferred in one cycle, contrary to guidance from UK regulators that most cycles should only involve one embryo.

The latest available figures show 396 men registered with UK regulators to donate sperm in 2008, alongside 1,150 women who registered as egg donors.

In 2008, 39,879 women had IVF treatment in the UK, of which 1,306 were treated with donor eggs.

However, the demand for egg and sperm donors far outstrips supply and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is examining how to boost numbers.

For this latest study, published today in the journal Human Reproduction, experts at De Montfort University Leicester interviewed senior clinicians, nurses and patients. Some 41 women and ten men who had been abroad for treatment, or who had made firm plans to go, were included in the research.

These patients made up 41 "cases" (with one case being either an individual or a couple seeking treatment together).

Most had received treatment in the UK prior to seeking out an overseas clinic, often over many years.

Some 71 per cent of people who took part in the study went abroad for treatment using donor eggs or sperm.

Overall, 46 per cent were using donor eggs, 12 per cent donor sperm, 10 per cent both and 3 per cent donor embryos.

Of those using donor eggs or sperm, many said the ability to match donors based on physical resemblance between parent and child was a benefit of going abroad.

For some, the anonymity of donors in countries such as Spain, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine was important.

Of the entire group, other main reasons for going abroad were long waiting lists in the UK, high costs and poor experiences of treatment in the UK.

The option of having more than one embryo transferred during a treatment cycle was also mentioned as a positive aspect of treatment abroad.

However, there were some issues, including concerns that not all staff spoke English in overseas clinics, concern about the complaints process abroad and worries about the reliability of information given by clinics on potential donors.

Professor Lorraine Culley, who worked on the study, said: "A need for donor gametes was a significant motivation for overseas travel among our participants so it is clear that measures need to be taken to address the UK donor shortage.

"A properly funded, nationally co-ordinated strategy to improve donor recruitment would result in fewer people needing to travel in order to receive treatment in a timely manner."

Conservative MP Gareth Johnson, chairman of the cross-party parliamentary group on infertility, said: "I very much welcome this report, it highlights the desperation of many couples who are forced to travel abroad to seek out infertility treatment."