Last week's news that a healthy baby boy was conceived using sperm frozen 21 years earlier triggered a flurry of front page news stories. Rather confusingly, several referred to the infant, born in 2002, as the '21-year-old baby', with one newspaper cartoon showing a newborn baby setting off for a night out down the pub. But in general, the public and media alike greeted the news with delight, and with warm wishes for the couple involved.
The boy was born after four cycles of IVF, using sperm frozen before his father underwent treatment for testicular cancer, at the age of 17. The radiotherapy and chemotherapy left the man sterile but, thanks to his banked sperm, he was able to become a father. Although the length of storage time is believed to be the longest yet, the news confirms what fertility doctors have long known: that frozen sperm can survive for decades. And according to a US study published last month, once it is thawed, it is just as effective as fresh sperm.
The doctors involved were quick to point out that if they had followed Health Secretary John Reid's advice for the provision of fertility treatment in England and Wales, the boy would not have been born. No matter that the man had survived cancer, and that his sperm was still healthy after 21 years stored in liquid nitrogen, the couple would still have had to overcome the IVF funding hurdle. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), in a bid to end the 'postcode lottery' for fertility treatment, recently recommended that the NHS should fund up to three cycles of treatment. Despite these guidelines, which still would not have helped the couple in the news this week, John Reid agreed to fund the provision of just one cycle of IVF.
But even for survivors of cancer who are fortunate enough to be treated by an understanding health authority, there is another important issue that needs addressing. A recent survey, carried out by the Teenage Cancer Trust, revealed that two thirds of teenage cancer patients did not get any advice about fertility prior to their treatment, and that half of those who did were not happy with it. Given that sperm freezing is a routine, highly effective procedure, it is tragic that patients are potentially missing out on the opportunity to preserve their fertility, simply because they are not aware it can be done.