A report shows that more women than ever are turning to IVF as technology overcomes old taboos.

IVF treatment is on the rise in Australia and New Zealand, but it remains a risky procedure for women over 44, with only a handful of older women managing to deliver a live baby. The latest report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) found that the use of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) such as IVF soared by almost 50 per cent in the five years to 2009.

The report found there were 70,541 ART treatment cycles in Australia and New Zealand in 2009, a 14 per cent rise on 2008 and a 48 per cent increase since 2005. From all those treatment cycles, more than 12,000 babies were born. Almost one-quarter of cycles were undertaken by women who had previously given birth.

But local experts say the figures don’t tell the whole story. Monash IVF Queensland chief executive Dr Adrianne Pope says while it’s true that more people are turning to IVF, the spike in 2009 could also be an anomaly attributed to the Federal Government’s cuts to the Medicare safety net, which saw IVF become more expensive from 2010. “We found that people jumped to act before the price variation kicked in, so 2009 was a very busy year for us,” she explains. Dr Pope’s observation is supported by Medicare figures that show an 18 per cent increase in IVF cycles in 2009 but a 16 per cent drop in 2010.

Dr Pope says 2011 figures haven’t been released yet but things seem to be picking up again.

City Fertility chief executive Dr Adnan Catakovic also says the report’s figures may be inflated by the inclusion of other assisted reproductive technologies, such as inter-uterine insemination (IUI), which historically hasn’t been included in IVF reports. He thinks the uptake would be closer to 20 or 30 per cent over the past five years in Queensland.

However, Dr Catakovic and Dr Pope agree that IVF is definitely on the rise – thanks greatly to wider community acceptance. “IVF used to be a taboo subject,” Dr Catakovic says. “Even 10 years ago it was still considered something that you didn’t tell your friends but today the community is definitely more educated.”

The technology has also improved greatly. The AIHW report shows that the number of multiple births remained fairly steady at 8.2 per cent after continuous falls since 2005 when 14 per cent of treatment cycles resulted in at least two babies being born. Only about eight per cent of all deliveries from ART in 2009 resulted in twins being born, with just 0.2 per cent resulting in triplets. This is due to the trend of implanting a single, five-day-old embryo instead of several three-day-old embryos in a woman. The proportion of single embryo transfer cycles increased from 48 per cent in 2005 to 70 per cent in 2009 – a change Dr Catakovic describes as “one of the most successful changes to clinical practice,” as multiple births, particularly in older mothers, are associated with higher morbidity rates and conditions such as cerebral palsy.

While the average age of the mums-to-be using their own eggs was 35, one in four women were aged 40 or older, according to the AIHW report. But it remains much harder for older women to have a baby. Less than one per cent of women aged over 44 who used their own eggs managed to deliver a live baby compared to more than a quarter of women aged 30-40.

About three per cent of women who gave birth in Australia during 2009 received some form of ART. Most used their own fresh or frozen eggs, with about five per cent relying on donor eggs or other forms of ART such as surrogacy. However, donor eggs can be hard to find, with strict laws preventing commercial trading, unlike in the United States where women in their 40s may experience a successful pregnancy by purchasing a 20-year-old’s egg. Dr Catakovic says celebrities using donor eggs perpetuate the myth that successful pregnancies in older mothers are common but once a woman is 43 or 44, it is much more difficult without a donor.