World Embryologists Day: ‘Need retrospective studies to deal with pregnancies in COVID-19 pandemic’
Embryologists all over the world have been successful in conceiving around 8 million IVF (in vitro fertilisation) babies since the first test-tube baby was born on July 25, 1978. Forty years on, this branch of reproductive science has assumed profound importance in today’s fast-paced and increasingly individualised society, providing hope to millions of childless couples.
But what impact has the world’s COVID-19 pandemic had on this field of promise?
As per a study published in December 2019 by the Indian Society of Assisted Reproduction, 10-14 per cent of the Indian population is affected by infertility, with urban dwellers being the worst-hit. This means that about 27.5 million Indian couples are unable to reproduce children owing to their personal infertility issues. Improper work-life balance, limited physical activity, poor eating habits, and high levels of stress are the reasons outlined in the study for infertility amongst people.
Dr Radhika Wagh, a practising gynaecologist, while speaking to Sakal Times, narrated the case of one of her patients who was pregnant and suffering from a respiratory tract infection.
“Pregnancy is a powerful state of the body. When my patient came in with the infection, my husband and I (who is also a gynaecologist and IVF specialist), strongly advised the entire family to get COVID-19 tests done. To everyone’s surprise, the whole family tested positive for the virus, but the pregnant woman’s test came out negative,” she said while elaborating on the body’s immune strength in the state of pregnancy.
However, she further highlighted how a woman’s immune system needs to be medically subdued for a short period while planting the artificially developed embryo by the embryologist. “This may not necessarily make the patient undergoing the process, fully susceptible to contracting the novel coronavirus, but she would definitely need to take extra precaution,” she explained.
In the backdrop of rising power cuts in repeated COVID-19 lockdowns, Dr Supriya Puranik stressed, “Embryo clinics in small towns and cities do not have enough equipment or duplicate machinery to conduct the process smoothly. In the case of a power outage, the incubators in such clinics stop working, and since they have no backups, the embryo does not outlive the period without electricity.”
Dr Puranik is a practising gynaecologist and IVF specialist and is also known for delivering the first IVF baby in Satara district. “This is a very challenging field. The success of ‘in vitro fertilisation’ (IVF) is entirely dependent on the skills of the embryologist,” she added.
Commenting on the lack of regulation of this industry in India, she said, “The ICMR is the apex body and must-visit IVF clinics and centres routinely, in order to bring in regulation. However, that is hardly done and has resulted in the mushrooming of illegal IVF centres all over the country.”
Even though ‘stress’ is one of the most common reasons behind infertility, the lifestyle that is being promoted due to the current pandemic, is not helping young couples cope with it. Dr Wagh said that COVID-19 has had an indirect impact on the phenomenon of pregnancy.
“Since this is entirely an artificial procedure that takes a physical and mental toll on a woman, the success rate is low. The couples who came for this treatment in pre-COVID times were already stressed. Now that their stress levels have increased, it has brought down the already-modest success rate of the embryo development and implantation,” she informed.
Giving the example of the ‘TORCH’ infection that affects women, Dr Wagh emphasised that there is evidence that viruses impact pregnancies. “A known viral infection like that has seen many cases of ‘spontaneous miscarriages’ in women. Thus, there must be a COVID-impact too. What we need is a retrospective study to know what COVID has done to pregnant women or women undergoing infertility treatment,” she said.
The babies conceived during this pandemic are being colloquially referred to as ‘coronnials’. To know whether these coronnials will be born with or without any anomalies, a retrospective study needs to be conducted, as per Dr Wagh, who has also completed her fellowship in infertility.
“We cannot underestimate the importance of masks, gloves, social distance, and hygiene when creating a handbook for battling the novel virus. However, if COVID-19 strikes again, even embryologists and IVF specialist-doctors need a handbook for dealing with births and pregnancies. We need to conduct research and studies to prepare ourselves better,” she said.