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Fertility and infertility : studies in reproductive epidemiology in Australia

Herbert, Danielle (2011) Fertility and infertility : studies in reproductive epidemiology in Australia. PhD thesis, .

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Abstract

Worldwide, there are few large-scale epidemiological studies on infertility. In Australia, population-based research on infertility is limited to a few small-scale studies. Therefore, the prevalence of infertility and unmet need for specialist medical advice and treatment cannot be estimated reliably. Women who have used assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are recorded in treatment registries. However, there are many infertile women who are excluded from these clinical populations because they neither seek advice nor use treatment. The thesis was based on a biopsychosocial model of health and used the methods of reproductive epidemiology to address the lack of national data on the prevalence of infertility in Australia.

Firstly, numbers of births and pregnancy losses were investigated in two generations of women participating in the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH). The ALSWH is a broad-ranging, longitudinal examination of biological, psychological and social factors that impact on women’s health and wellbeing. Women from three age cohorts were randomly sampled from the population using the universal public health insurance (i.e., Medicare) database and ALSWH participants were representative of the female population. However, the studies in the thesis only involved data from two cohorts. The younger cohort were born in 1973-78 and completed up to four mailed surveys between 1996 (when they were aged 18-23 years, n=14247) and 2006 (28-33 years, n=9145). The mid-aged cohort were born in 1946-51 and completed four mailed surveys between 1996 (when they were aged 45-50 years n=13715) and 2004 (53-58 years, n=10905).

Compared to other studies that focus on outcomes of single pregnancies, these studies included all pregnancy outcomes by developing comprehensive reproductive histories for each woman. Pregnancy outcomes included birth, miscarriage, stillbirth, termination and ectopic pregnancy. Women in the youngest cohort (born in 1973-78) were only just reaching their peak childbearing years and many (44%) had yet to report their first pregnancy outcome. Women from the mid-aged cohort (born 1946-51) had completed their reproductive lives and 92% were able to report on their lifetime pregnancy outcomes. Pregnancy losses, especially miscarriage, were common for both generations of women.

Secondly, the prevalence of infertility, seeking medical advice and using treatment was identified for these two generations of women. For the older generation, the lifetime prevalence of infertility and demand for treatment was investigated in the context of the specialist medical services which became available circa 1980. By this time, however, most of these older women had already been pregnant and completed their families. For women who experienced infertility (11%), their options for advice and treatment were limited and less than half (42%) had used any treatment. More recently for the younger generation of women, who were aged 28-33 years in 2006, specialist advice and treatment were extensively available. Among women who had tried to conceive or had been pregnant (n=5936), 17% had experienced infertility and the majority (72%) were able to access medical advice. However, after seeking advice only half of these infertile women had used treatment with fertility hormones or in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Overall for infertile women aged up to 33 years, only one-third had used these treatments.

Thirdly, the barriers to accessing medical advice and using treatment for infertility were identified for women aged less than 34 years. Among a community sample of infertile women aged 28-33 years (ALSWH participants), self-reported depression was found to be a barrier to accessing medical advice. The characteristics of these infertile women in the community who had (n=121) or had not (n=110) used treatment were compared to infertile women aged 27-33 years (n=59) attending four fertility clinics. Compared to infertile women in the community, living in major cities and having private health insurance were associated with early use of treatment for infertility at specialist clinics by women aged <34 years. In contrast to most clinical studies of IVF, the final study reported in the thesis took into account repeated IVF cycles and the impact of women’s individual histories on IVF outcomes. Among 121 infertile women (aged 27-46 years) who had 286 IVF cycles, older age and prolonged use of the oral contraceptive pill were associated with fewer eggs collected. Further, women in particular occupations had lower proportions of eggs fertilised normally than women in other occupational groups.

These studies form the first large-scale epidemiological examination of infertility in Australia. The finding that two-thirds of women with infertility had not used treatment indicates that there is an unmet need for specialist treatment in women aged less than 34 years. However, barriers to accessing treatment prevent women using ART at a younger age when there is a higher chance of pregnancy.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 54478
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Fertility, Infertility, Reproductive history, Pregnancy loss, Assisted reproductive technology
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > MEDICAL AND HEALTH SCIENCES (110000) > PUBLIC HEALTH AND HEALTH SERVICES (111700) > Epidemiology (111706)
Divisions: Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Institution: The University of Queensland
Deposited On: 02 Nov 2012 09:34
Last Modified: 02 Nov 2012 09:34

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