What is ‘Infertility’?

GirlThe World Health Organisation defines infertility as a disease. Fertility problems are estimated to affect one in six couples in the UK – approximately 3.5 million people.

The earliest studies into the prevalence of infertility in the UK were conducted in the mid 1980s – a fact due, in part, to the birth of the first IVF baby in 1978 and the subsequent increase in research interest in the field.

Research has indicated that the prevalence rates discovered in these studies have remained largely the same since then.

In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and Intra-cytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI)

IVF is a standard treatment for couples experiencing difficulties in conceiving. It is typically used when drug treatment alone is unsuccessful.

ICSI is a complement of an IVF cycle, which is commonly used in instances where the male partner has a very low sperm count; it involves injecting a single sperm directly into an egg in order to fertilise it. The fertilised egg (embryo) is then transferred to the woman’s womb. Advancements in ICSI mean that as long as some sperm can be obtained (even in very low numbers), fertilisation is possible.

As stated above, these treatments are typically a last resort for couples experiencing fertility problems. Although treatment can be very successful, the clinical reasons for seeking it depend upon the couple in question.

Percentages of couples seeking standard IVF or ICSI treatment, by the reason they sought treatment, 2011


Data trends

According to data from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the independent regulator of fertility treatment in the UK, a minority, four in ten (40.3%) of IVF treatment cycles was funded by the NHS in 2011. The majority, six in ten (59.7%) were funded privately. In 2010, the figures were similar: 40.6% and 59.4% for NHS and private funding respectively. It is important to remember that these figures are skewed by the better treatment provision in Scotland and Wales, so the figure for NHS funded treatment for England is likely to be lower than this.

The number of IVF cycles performed each year has increased steadily since 1991, and in 2011 was over 60,000. Over this period, the live birth rate after IVF increased from 14%, to a 25% in 2010. This rate is likely to increase over the coming years as new advancements lead to better techniques.

Number of IVF cycles performed each year, 1991 to 2011


It is estimated that more than 5 million babies have been born worldwide as a result of IVF treatment. In the UK 201,811 babies were born after IVF treatment between 1991 and 2010. By 2010, nearly 2% of all babies in the UK were born through IVF treatment.

The two general trends that have been identified above (an increase in the number of people seeking IVF, and improving success rates) are undoubtedly interlinked. The steady increase in success rates is good news for the NHS, which stands to benefit directly from greater efficiency of resources.