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'Big business': Why women are spending thousands to freeze their eggs

By Merryn Porter |

Egg freezing was first developed in the 1980s as a way to preserve a woman's fertility while she underwent treatment, such as chemotherapy.

It later became a more mainstream form of fertility preservation for women, and has exploded in popularity in recent years in Australia.

But egg freezing is not a magic bullet, with experts warning it will not guarantee you a baby.

Pregnancy
Egg freezing began in the '80s but is a common practice among women now. (Getty)

The first successful birth following egg freezing was reported in the 1980s.

By the late 1990s, egg freezing was becoming more widely used to preserve fertility of women undergoing treatment that put them at risk of sterility. It was soon offered to women as a way to have viable eggs for a pregnancy later in life.

In Australia, most leading IVF clinics such as IVF Australia, Genea and Monash IVF offer egg freezing for medical reasons (i.e cancer treatment) and non-medical reasons.

Depending on the reason for freezing your eggs, you may receive a Medicare subsidy.?

Why freeze your eggs??

Women are born with all the eggs they have in their lifetime, but the quality and quantity of those eggs deteriorate over time.

At the peak of a woman's fertility from her mid-20s to early-30s, a woman has about a 15 per cent chance of conceiving naturally each month. From the age of 35, this starts to drop and by 40, she will only have a 5 per cent chance of conception each month.

Pregnant woman
Women are born with all the eggs they will have in their lifetime. (Getty)

Big business

Professor Michael Chapman is a pioneer of IVF in Australia and practices in Sydney.

The former Fertility Society of Australia president said egg freezing was now "big business" in Australia, with more women going ahead with the procedure each year.

"In my clinic, we would have done 50 a year, that is not counting cancer cases. Now we are doing somewhere between 400 and 500," he said.

The best age to freeze your eggs

Egg freezing success rates are linked to a woman's age at the time the eggs are frozen, not the time of pregnancy.

As egg quality decreases over time, it is wise to freeze your eggs when you are younger.

IVF Australia says success rates are lower for women over 35, which is why it recommends preserving your fertility sooner rather than later.

Professor Chapman said while women as young as 28 were now inquiring about freezing their eggs, the optimum time was before the age of 35.

"We are seeing many women at 35 and 36. Unfortunately, we also see many women who are waiting too long and coming when it is unrealistic," he said.

"If you are over 38, do not bother."?

Egg freezing has become "big business" in Australia. (IVF Australia)

Egg freezing success rates

Egg ?freezing success rates are not that easy to quantify because in Australia, less than 10 per cent of women who freeze their eggs end up using them.

IVF Australia says ?the chance of having a baby using frozen eggs is similar to the IVF success rates using fresh eggs.

"The two most important factors that determine the chance of having a baby from frozen eggs are your age when your eggs are frozen and the number of eggs that are stored," it says.

Professor Chapman said advances in technology in the past decade or so had increased success rates.

"Success rates are now up to about 8 or 9 per cent per egg," he said. "That doesn't sound that great, but if you have 10 eggs that gets you a greater than 50 per cent of having a baby.

"Statistically, if you have 10 eggs, it's likely you would end up with one or two embryos from that. If you were 30-35 when you froze those eggs, you have a 35 to 40 per cent chance of a pregnancy per embryo."

Egg freezing
Professor Chapman says advances in technology have increased success rates for women. (Getty)

Egg freezing cost?

The out-of-pocket cost of egg freezing in Australia depends on the clinic and whether it is for medical or non-medical reasons. It can range from anywhere from $3000 to more than $10,000.

At IVF Australia, it costs about $9000 to freeze your eggs. This includes $5075 for the elective egg freezing cycle, day surgery costs of about $2000, ?medications (about $1500) and consultations with a fertility specialist (about $250 each, with a Medicare rebate of $80 if you are eligible and have a referral).

Medical egg freezing is covered by Medicare, which can bring the out-of-pocket cost down.

Prof Chapman said that apart from cancer treatment, a medical basis could include certain conditions, such as severe endometriosis or diminished ovarian reserve.

As well as the cost of the procedure, there is an ongoing egg freezing storage cost.

IVF Australia charges $275 every six months to store eggs.

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Is there a subsidy for egg freezing in Australia?

The short answer is no?, unless you have a medical reason for freezing your eggs.

The ?NSW government runs a Fertility Preservation Service for people with a medical need for such treatment.

The NSW government also offers two subsidies; The Pre-IVF Fertility Testing Rebate and the Fertility Treatment Rebate.

The Fertility Treatment Rebate is not available if the sole purpose of treatment is preserving fertility.

However, you may be able to access funding for some of the treatment under the $250 Pre-IVF Fertility Testing Rebate.?

Egg freezing advantages and disadvantages

Prof Chapman said there were pros and cons to egg freezing.

"The main advantage is the security it gives you," he said.

?"Once women get to 38 and over, the quantity and quality of eggs is dropping off.

"If you got in and froze your eggs at 32 or 33, you have got three times more chance of getting pregnant than if you try to start a family over 40.

"It's a security blanket, but it's not a guarantee.

"The disadvantage is, I think it gives some degree of false hope. ?

"We are certainly starting to see the disappointment now in women returning [to use their eggs] and it's not working.

"If you got 20 eggs when you are 30, you are still not going to give yourself more than a 60 per cent chance of having a baby.

"But certainly, if you find yourself over 38 trying to have a baby for the first time without those eggs, that is much better odds."

Experts say egg freezing is not a guarantee. (Getty)

Egg-freezing process

Egg-freezing requires women to undergo many of the steps required for IVF.

Most IVF clinics will ask you to undergo a series of investigations, including blood tests and an ultrasound. You will also be offered counselling.

Step 1 Stimulating the ovaries

You will begin your treatment cycle with a course of drugs to stimulate the ovaries to produce more eggs than usual.

This phase of treatment lasts 10 days. You will need to self-administer injections or drugs and attend the IVF clinic several times for blood tests and ultrasounds to check progress.

One of the biggest health risks associated with egg freezing is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS), a potentially serious condition. If you develop OHSS during your cycle it may be cancelled.

Step 2 Egg retrieval

?Once the egg stimulation phase of treatment is complete, you will undergo the egg retrieval procedure, during day surgery.

You will be sedated with a light anaesthetic or in some cases given a general anaesthetic before a fine needle is used to collect the eggs under ultrasound guidance. The procedure takes about half an hour.

Egg retrieval is not considered painful, with most people experiencing mild abdominal cramping.

Someone will need to take you home after the procedure and stay with you for the remainder of the day.

Egg retrieval recovery time is usually a day or two.

Step 3 Egg freezing

The third and final stage of treatment is egg freezing. The most current form is vitrification, which replaced slow freezing about a decade ago, and is showing improved success rates.

Please note the information in this story is general in nature. Please always consult your GP or health professional for advice that is tailored to your specific health concerns.?

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