Do Asian & Caucasian women respond the same to IVF?

Written by Dr Andrew Kan
20 Feb

As a Singaporean born, and UK and Australian trained Gynaecologist, Obstetrician and Fertility Specialist, I have been exposed to how different ethnicities respond to fertility issues more than most. And in my case, since I speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese (and even a little Japanese and Indonesian), it tends to be Asian and Caucasian women and couples that I predominantly treat.

Over time, I began to see some trends arise with different groups of women, and my clinical background prompted me to want to more robustly investigate these trends. So, with a few colleagues from IVFAustralia, together with Macquarie University, we conducted a formal trial to see if these observed trends were quantifiable, and if so, how could we use this information to improve treatment outcomes for our patients.

I recently presented these results to a group of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists at the opening of Virtus Fertility Centre in Singapore. The results have also been accepted for publication in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research and are now available online.

A comparison of Asian and Caucasian women in IVF

This extensive, clinical trial was conducted over a 10 year period and involved almost 2,600 patients (2072 Caucasian and 522 Asian women) undergoing IVF treatment. All the patients were managed by the same doctor and were treated at the same Sydney fertility clinic.

The top-line results from this trial demonstrated that although Asian women achieved a significantly lower clinical pregnancy and live birth rate than their Caucasian counterparts, this difference was not significant after controlling for age and duration of infertility.

Another observation from the study was that Caucasian women presenting for infertility had more male factor and PCOS diagnosed than their Asian counterparts. This might explain the higher rate of the use of ICSI and the larger number of eggs collected as part of an IVF cycle in the Caucasian group.

Why did the IVF success rates appear to be lower for Asian women?

After controlling for age and length of infertility, the results indicated that there does not appear to be a difference in IVF pregnancy rates as a result of race. However, Asian women did tend to leave it later before consulting a Fertility Specialist. Since a woman’s age is the number one factor influencing infertility, seeing a specialist later and trying for a longer period of time without assistance will have a negative impact on IVF success rates.

This further reinforces the need to educate women and couples from all ethnicities about the important factors that affect their fertility – in particular the woman’s age, the man’s sperm quality, and common conditions or diseases that can affect fertility. Because a woman is born with a set number of eggs and these decline with age, there's nothing we can do to slow down the ageing process. While positive lifestyle choices can improve the chances of conceiving by improving overall health, we cannot turn around the effect of age a woman's ovaries – no matter how young a woman looks or feels!

In addition to understanding the key influences on pregnancy success, couples having difficulties conceiving should know at what point they should seek the help of a Fertility Specialist. The earlier they do this, the better the chance of pregnancy success, and this doesn’t necessarily have to mean through IVF.  For women over the age of 35, we recommend seeking the advice of a Fertility Specialist after 6 months of trying. For women younger than this, we would recommend seeking advice after 12 months of trying.

Read more: IVFAustralia, Virtus Fertility Centre Singapore, Melbourne IVF, Qld Fertility Group
 

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Related Articles

Conceiving in your 40s, what are the chances?

I was recently asked to comment in a Sun Herald article on 26th August (also published online here: Sydney Morning Herald) on Collette Dinnigan, who pregnant at the age of 46, has called on women not to leave it too long to try for a baby.

It is always news when a high profile personality such as Ms Dinnigan, has a child, particularly when the personality in question is a bit older.  The difficulty is that these occasions, while very happy for the people involved, give a misleading picture of the actual likelihood of conception in these circumstances.  Remember that high profile personalities such as Ms Dinnigan, are human beings who quite rightly value their privacy and so very rarely (quite understandably) talk to the press when things aren’t going so well.  It was therefore, a particularly courageous action of Ms Dinnigan, while celebrating her own happiness, to so publicly, point out the difficulties that may face other women, seeking the same fulfilment.

What then, are the issues for women in their forties who are planning to have a child?

The main difficulty is that conceiving is simply harder at that age and, even once a woman does conceive, the risk of miscarriage is higher.  Surprisingly, although we have very good data about the effects of age on IVF conception (more shortly), we don’t have very good statistics about the effects of age on conceiving naturally. The limited available data about natural conception comes from old population studies or studies of unique populations, such as the Hutterites of North America, who do not use contraception.  Interestingly these data, such as they are, seem to be entirely consistent with the more modern and abundant IVF data.  Generally, in one year of trying, 75% of women under 30 years and 66% of 35-year-old women but only 44% of 40-year-old women will achieve a live baby naturally.

The main explanation for this, is that women are born with a finite number of eggs, and from that moment onwards, the number of eggs is declining all the time, until women go through their menopause at around 50-51.  Nonetheless, women in their 40s do still ovulate each month.  What is it about their eggs that cause all these problems?

A common misunderstanding with some women is that the fact she looks and feels young, and leads a healthy lifestyle, means that her eggs will be healthier. I regularly see women who have taken enormous care with their fitness and their health.  The rest of their body is in great shape, completely fit and ready to carry that longed-for pregnancy.  Sadly, despite this, the eggs still can’t do it.  The effects of time are remorseless and, sadly, there is no wonder drug to fix it.

Scientists have shown that eggs from older women are more likely to have an abnormal makeup making pregnancy less likely, miscarriage more common and increasing the risk of Down Syndrome, a condition where a child is born with an extra chromosome number 21.

Nor is IVF a cure for this problem. For women, in their early 40s, IVF is still a good thing to try and gives significantly higher success rates than trying naturally.    However, IVF success rates fall sharply after the age of 40 and by the time a woman is 45 are close to zero.

So, what’s the good news?  Well despite all of the above, many women do conceive in their forties, either by IVF, or naturally, and have very happy healthy families.  It is obviously better to have your family earlier, if you can, but all hope is not lost, just because you’re past 40.  Conception and early miscarriage are the big problems but, if you do conceive and get past the first few weeks, by far the most likely outcome will be a healthy child.  While the risk of Down Syndrome is increased, most of the other problems that affect young children are not increased by being conceived a later maternal age.

Finally, many women worry that by having their children later, their long term health and emotional development may be affected.  On the contrary, we now know that the children of older mums grow up to be as healthy and bright as any other child.

Snapshot of Fertility in Australia

There have been a number of happy and high profile stories in the press recently about older celebrities giving birth to healthy children. Stories like this used to be extraordinary, but they certainly seem to be on the increase. While this trend is supported by data that shows the fertility rate and numbers of births are increasing for women over 30 and especially for women in their early 40s, women and couples should understand the risks associated with having children later in life.  IVF Australia, Melbourne IVF and Queensland Fertility Group, have teamed up to create their latest infographic - “Fertility and Age in Australia” which explores some of these issues.
 Fertility in Australia infographic

Paternity, Maternity, Equality

Conceiving a baby in a same sex relationship

IVFAustralia, and its partner clinics Melbourne IVF, Queensland Fertility Group and TasIVF, are proud supporters of ‘rainbow families’. IVFAustralia were an Official Supporter of Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras this year, and we’ve seen the number of same sex couples accessing our donor program double in the last year.
 
In 2011, a survey of 3,835 LGBT people found 33% of women and 11% of men had children1 - but close to 40% reported wanting to have children or have more children. This so-called ‘gayby’ boom is thanks to changes in community attitudes and laws, including better access to Assisted Reproductive Treatments for lesbian and single women.
 
So, if you’re hoping to experience the joy of starting a family within a gay or lesbian relationship, what do you need to consider?

How long will it take to conceive?

Generally speaking, we’d expect a healthy woman with no fertility issues to fall pregnant through IVF or Artificial Insemination within six months. You can prepare for pregnancy by improving your diet, doing regular exercise and other lifestyle factors.
 
When you access the donor program there are a few extra decisions you need to make.
 
Do you choose a known donor, or an anonymous donor? In a lesbian relationship, do you want to implant an embryo with eggs from one mother into the other? Should you store some sperm from the same donor for later, in case you’d like a related sibling? For two dads, the process of finding a surrogate can also be complex.

How do we choose a donor?

Our fertility clinics offer access to both Australian and US* donor sperm. The access fee for US donor sperm is higher, but the waiting list is also shorter as there is a shortage of local donors (gay men, we’d love to hear from you!)
 
When you’re using donor sperm or eggs, there are a few legal, emotional and ethical factors to consider and a counsellor will help you work through these concerns so you can make the best decisions for your family’s future.

Are there any legal issues?

Each state has different laws about parental recognition and access, so it’s worth seeking specialist advice before you start.
 
For example, in Victoria, the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act (2008) removed discrimination against lesbian and single women with regard to fertility treatment, recognised parenting status for non-birth mothers and also effectively legalised ‘altruistic’ surrogacy. It also recognises lesbian couples as equal parents of their child or children as long as they were in a de facto relationship.

What else should we be prepared for?

30 years of research2 has shown that the children of same-sex parented families do just as well as the children of heterosexual parents socially, educationally, physically and emotionally.

The issues your children will face as they get older are just the same as the issues facing any children conceived using donor sperm or eggs: Where did I come from? Should I contact my donor? You need to be prepared for these questions at some point.
 
In the meantime, we hope we can help you fulfil your dream of having a baby, and that you will experience the joys of pregnancy, birth and parenthood.

What should be my next steps?

If you would like to learn more about the fertility treatments available for same-sex couples in your regions, visit one of our websites. 


 * IVFAustralia and Queensland Fertility Group patients only.

1 Leonard et al. (2012) Private Lives 2: The Second National Survey of the Health and Wellbeing of GLBT Australians, The Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, Melbourne
2Rainbow Families Council of Victoria (2010) Rainbow Families and the Law, RFC, Melbourne, http://www.rainbowfamilies.org 

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