5 million babies born through IVF in past 35 years, researchers say

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By Bonnie Rochman

When the world’s first test-tube baby made her debut 35 years ago, the event seized headlines. Since then, in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, has become so common that researchers now estimate that some 5 million babies have followed Louise Brown’s much-heralded delivery.

What’s more, half of those babies have arrived in the past six years as stigma surrounding infertility has lessened and technology has improved, according to first-ever research presented Monday in Boston at the meeting of the International Federation of Fertility Societies and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

“IVF has become sort of mainstream,” says Dr. David Adamson, a reproductive endocrinologist in San Jose and Palo Alto, Calif., who led the efforts to analyze 10 reports from two international organizations that monitor births resulting from fertility treatment.

Until now, it’s been hard to get a handle on the number of IVF births worldwide, said Adamson, who is part of a nongovernmental organization called ICMART, or the International Committee for Monitoring Assisted Reproductive Technology.

The reports spanned the years from 1989 to 2007, with a few years missing in between. They relied on available data, which is far from complete, meaning that 5 million births is really a “best guess,” says Adamson.

Researchers are relying on data that assumes they have information on two-thirds of reported IVF cycles worldwide. The figures in the 10 reports come in part from the International Working Group for Registers on Assisted Reproduction, a volunteer group of physicians that banded together in the late 1980s to begin collecting IVF data. About 10 years ago, that organization evolved into ICMART, which has continued to collect information about IVF births.

“There is so much missing data, which is the reason this hasn’t been done until now,” says Adamson. “The reality is no one will ever know exactly how many babies have been born because no one ever counted.”

There are nearly 200 countries in the world, and Adamson estimates that about half have at least one IVF clinic. But just 74 countries have ever tracked and shared their data, and they don’t all do so consistently. China, which is thought to account for close to 20% of IVF births, doesn’t report its data, although Adamson said the Ministry of Health has indicated it’s working toward that goal.

Births have increased exponentially over the years, according to the research. In 1990, a little more than a decade after the first IVF birth, about 95,000 babies were born. By 2000, that figure had grown to nearly 1 million, and by 2007, it had climbed to more than 2 million.

“A lot of this has to do with increased success rates,” says Dr. Robert Stillman, medical director emeritus at Shady Grove Fertility Center in Rockville, Md., which says it performs more IVF cycles than any other U.S. clinic. “There has been a steady improvement in the ability to culture embryos and improve pregnancy rates. A 38-year-old coming to us in 1997 versus 2007 versus 2013 has a very different prognosis.”

A woman struggling with infertility is also far more likely to come in 2013 than she ever would have been in 1997. “There’s more acceptance and because of that, more people are prepared to do it,” says Adamson. “People used to be more concerned about it. We could spend hours discussing how safe it is, but the bottom line is that babies do well and people are confident about it.”

For Lisa McGill of Carmel, Calif., IVF was a last-ditch effort. McGill’s first marriage ended with no children. Her second husband has a 16-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. “We decided we wanted to have kids together, but it wasn’t happening instantly,” says McGill, 44.

She went through seven IVF cycles before twins Tamzin and Brody were born Aug. 3. “It was a very emotional and grueling process,” says McGill, who works in human resources at a data networking company. “It was not fun, but it was totally worth it. 

Without the technological advances of the last few decades, McGill realizes it’s likely that her twins wouldn’t have been conceived. 

“We were just so fortunate that this was an option for us,” she says. “It’s easy to give up hope, but if people haven’t tried IVF, they absolutely should before they try another option.”