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The hidden risks of IVF

The method means that each round of IVF is far more likely to succeed " sparing couples the agony of repeated attempts at having a child.

The method means that each round of IVF is far more likely to succeed " sparing couples the agony of repeated attempts at having a child.

Published Aug 18, 2014


London - The weekend had been perfect: the sun had shone and the charming cottage they had rented in rural Norfolk had provided a much-needed break after months of gruelling IVF treatment.

Coming home, however, the roads were so choked with holiday traffic, Lee Cowden and her husband Iain had decided to take a scenic detour, making the journey to Surrey much longer than expected.

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So when Lee, then 26, walked through the front door she went straight to bed. But instead of drifting off to sleep, the music therapist suddenly found herself feeling breathless as a strange tingling sensation began shooting down her left arm.

Within a few moments, an excruciating pain gripped her left shoulder.

“I kept gasping,” says Lee. “Iain and I were terrified. I had no idea what was happening and Iain ran to call an ambulance.”

Within hours, Lee, who doesn’t smoke or drink, was in intensive care in St George’s Hospital in London, having suffered a major heart attack caused by a blood clot.

She says: “I remember lying there, strapped to monitors, thinking ‘How did I get here, what am I doing here?’”

The doctors had no idea what had caused it - Lee had never suffered any cardiac problems before. It was only two days later, when she mentioned she was in the middle of IVF treatment, having already had three failed cycles, that the penny dropped.

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“They told me blood clots are a potential complication of IVF drugs,” she says. “Sitting in the car for hours had caused a blood clot, which had moved to my heart.

“I was horrified. The IVF had been bad enough but now, all I could think was what chance did I have of conceiving after a heart attack? I just couldn’t stop crying.

“I couldn’t understand why no one had told me this could happen. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have spent hours sitting in a car.”

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The news got worse: the attack had caused a small hole in her heart, which had to be surgically repaired. Doctors advised Lee to wait another nine months before having any more fertility treatment, to avoid putting her body under more strain.

“It was a desperate time,” says Lee, from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. “It seemed the very treatment that was supposed to help me achieve my dream was cruelly taking it away from me.”

Lee had needed IVF because she suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome, which made it difficult to get pregnant naturally.

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“I was never told that by having IVF I was putting my health at risk,” she says. “In fact, when nothing happened after the first two cycles, the doctors simply doubled the dosage of fertility drugs.”

Lee’s story sits uneasily with the much-peddled notion that IVF is a safe way to have a baby. Instead, stories like hers raise the terrifying question of whether some IVF clinics are cynically capitalising on women’s desire for a baby, without paying due care to their health.

The drive for high success rates - and reassuring statistics to “sell” to prospective clients - raises fears that some clinics are reckless in their willingness to pump drugs into their patients.

Around 45 000 IVF cycles are performed in the UK every year to help the one in six couples who suffer from infertility.

It’s free on the NHS in some areas, but private clinics charge around £5 000 for a single treatment.

The process usually involves injecting stimulating drugs for two weeks so that the woman’s ovaries produce as many eggs as possible - usually 20 to 30.

These are then fertilised before being implanted into the womb.

It’s thought that the more eggs that can be harvested in a single procedure, the better: any spare embryos can be frozen for use at a later date.

Yet it seems not all women are warned of the serious risks - including death - that can result.

Last year, a Swedish study found women who get pregnant through IVF are almost twice as likely to develop potentially fatal blood clots because of the drugs used.

Deep vein thrombosis happens to four women per 1 000 who get pregnant through IVF.

The risks are very real. In 2012, Emma Draper, 26, from Dagenham in Essex, died from a massive stroke, triggered by a clot, just weeks after getting pregnant through IVF.

She was already receiving treatment for a condition called anti-phospholipid syndrome, which makes the blood prone to clotting, but her family say she wasn’t aware her IVF could prove fatal as it can also increase the risk.

Her husband Peter said: “Blood specialists warned us there was a risk of clotting from changing Emma’s medication, but nobody told us that IVF could be life-threatening.”

Regardless of how they conceive, all women are more prone to clots in pregnancy as the blood tends to coagulate more easily.

However, IVF carries an extra risk because it can result in ovarian hyper stimulation syndrome (OHSS) which again raises the chance of a clot.

OHSS is caused by the body over-reacting to the drugs used to stimulate the production of eggs.

It’s surprisingly common, affecting women after around one in ten cycles of IVF drugs.

“The problem with over-stimulating the ovaries is that this, in turn, produces larger amounts of the hormone oestrogen,” explains Leila Hanna, consultant gynaecologist and medical director of Chelsfield Park Hospital in Orpington, Kent.

“Increased amounts of oestrogen can make the blood thicken and could cause it to clot.

“Certain women are particularly vulnerable to OHSS such as those who suffer with polycystic ovary syndrome, and those under 35.”

And OHSS can also lead to other complications.

Katie Preston, who needed IVF because of her husband Matthew’s low sperm count, was 15 weeks pregnant when she began suffering agonising pains in her left side.

“I felt like a knife twisting inside me,” says the 27-year-old, from Birmingham. “All I could think was ‘please save my baby and make this stop’. I felt I’d done the hard part by getting pregnant. We were absolutely desperate to have a family - I couldn’t lose my baby now.”

She was rushed into hospital one Sunday and diagnosed with ovarian torsion, where heavy doses of IVF drugs cause cysts to develop on an ovary and twist it out of position.

Surgeons immediately removed Katie’s left ovary and fallopian tube but she had to wait an agonising 24 hours before discovering if the baby had survived as the scan clinic was closed for the weekend.

“I was utterly overwhelmed when I discovered the baby was OK,” she says, “but the rest of the pregnancy was awful. I could hardly stand up for about five weeks because of the surgery.”

Thankfully, baby Ethan was born healthy after a three-hour labour.

“I felt absolutely overwhelmed with love for him. I’ve never felt such happiness,” says Katie.

“I couldn’t stop looking at him in wonder and thinking ‘It’s over, I’m finally a mom’,” she says. “All that hurt and frustration and misery just melted away and all my husband could say was ‘My son, my son’.”

But consultant gynaecologist Professor Geeta Nargund believes many women are suffering unnecessarily and don’t need to be given huge amounts of drugs.

She practises “natural” IVF at the Create Health Clinic, and doesn’t try to boost egg production with drugs, instead harvesting the eggs that a woman produces naturally.

If that doesn’t work, they use a low-dose stimulant for just a few days to produce between two and seven eggs, not the usual 20 to 30.

She says: “By not stimulating the ovaries, we get the strongest eggs, the ones chosen by the body as most suitable for fertilisation.

“By looking at the quality of a woman’s eggs, not the quantity, we can give her the greatest chance of success while minimising the risks.”

Following her horrific experience with IVF, Lee Cowden eventually gave birth to a healthy baby, Molly, who’s now seven, after undergoing “natural” treatment, along with low doses of fertility drugs.

“Even now I struggle to find the words to describe that moment,” she says. “I never, ever imagined that I’d hold my own baby in my arms. And then she was here.”

Incredibly, 16 months later, Lee discovered she was pregnant again, this time thanks to Mother Nature.

It seems her ovaries were naturally stimulated by Molly’s arrival and started working normally. Her second daughter, Ruby, is now five.

But despite this, Lee remains angered by how little information is given to some women about the possible health risks of IVF.

“When you have IVF, it’s all-consuming, you can’t think about anything else,” she says. “The sheer volume of drugs you take is massive - I had horrible mood swings and I remember once dropping a vial of one of the drugs on the floor by accident and going crazy.

“The stress on my relationship was massive. And then I had a heart attack, which nearly killed me.

“Yet Molly is the proof that women don’t need to be pumped with heavy doses of these drugs and doctors shouldn’t take such a cavalier attitude as they seem to do now.

“They have to rethink their methods. No woman should be allowed to die just because she’s desperate for a baby.” - Daily Mail

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