Asian egg donor shortage in UK 'forcing couples abroad'

  • 15 May 2013
  • From the section UK
Image caption An increasing number of Asian couples are widening their search for an egg donor because of a shortage in the UK

An increasing number of childless Asian couples are travelling to India for fertility treatment because of a shortage of south Asian egg donors in the UK.

One couple who made the journey to India are 54-year-old Sunil and his wife Smita, 49 (their names have been changed) from the West Midlands.

Like one in six couples trying for a baby, the pair - a professional couple who married in their 40s - experienced problems conceiving. Their only hope of becoming parents is through IVF treatment using a donated egg.

UK clinics will usually offer donated eggs to women up to the age of 51 - but Sunil says they were forced to widen their search for an egg donor to India, because finding Asian egg donors in the UK was near impossible.

Waiting list

"I rang a number of clinics throughout the country and essentially the message I was getting from all the egg donor nurses was that there are very few Asian women who come forward to donate eggs," he says.

There is a general shortage of egg donors in the UK but Wendy Ross, the nurse responsible for egg donations at Birmingham Women's Hospital, says it is an ever bigger problem for Asian patients.

"I've got a waiting list of over 100 people and about a third of those are Asian," she says.

"Our recipients who are Asian have a couple of choices; they can wait forever for an egg donor, they can choose to have a Caucasian donor - which some of them do, and that's fine - or they may choose to go abroad... many of them do go to India," she says.

Sunil and Smita first travelled to an Indian fertility clinic in 2010. The IVF procedure using a donor egg was initially successful and Smita fell pregnant, only to miscarry on her return home.

The couple returned to the same centre six months later, and once again Smita was overjoyed to discover she had conceived.

However, once back in Britain this pregnancy too failed - doctors diagnosed an ectopic pregnancy, which is where the embryo implants outside the womb.

Although the couple were satisfied with the standards at the Indian clinic, British fertility experts are concerned about the safety of treatment abroad, particularly as this kind of reproductive tourism is becoming increasingly popular with British couples.

Not as regulated

Dr Madhurima Rajkhowa is a consultant gynaecologist at the Birmingham Women's Hospital.

"The internet has increased people's awareness about egg donation overseas where perhaps there is a greater availability of egg donors than there is locally," she says.

In the UK, commercial egg donation is banned and there are strict guidelines governing IVF procedures.

In the sub-continent, however, the industry is not as regulated.

Dr Rajkhowa fears some fertility clinics in India are risking women's health by implanting multiple embryos to increase the chances of a live birth.

"We have had patients who have had egg donation treatment overseas and come back to this country with triplet pregnancies and even higher order pregnancies, which then puts the patient in a terribly difficult position because these are very high risk pregnancies," she says.

There are ethical concerns, too, about the welfare of donors in India, where women are paid for their eggs.

Laura Witjens is chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust, a government-funded charity which aims to raise awareness of, and alleviate the shortage of, sperm, egg and embryo donors.

"For these women, because there's a big financial incentive, they may take unnecessary risks with their health," she says.

The reasons behind the lack of Asian egg donors in the UK is complex one.

Health experts suggest it may be due to cultural and religious reasons.

Meanwhile, Sunil and Smita are hoping an Asian egg donor will come forward in the UK. If not they are prepared to travel to India once again for treatment.

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