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Pregnant pause

Joy Li

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

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Across asia, as the region's economic vitality gains momentum, baby births continue to plummet. Fertility rate - the average number of children born per woman in her child-bearing years - significantly dropped to 2.18 in 2010, compared with 5.58 five decades ago.

Although lower birth rates are a global phenomenon, Asia's decline is even steeper.

In Hong Kong, along with other prosperous places like Singapore, Japan and South Korea, the fertility rate sits at a bottom-of-the-barrel 1.1.

To face this social challenge, it is critical to bridge the public's knowledge gap on infertility. At the same time, governments should devote more resources in helping families.

In a report titled Starting Families Asia, researchers from the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, at the National University Hospital Women's Centre in Singapore, interviewed 1,000 women in 10 countries and regions across Asia.

Those women, aged 20 to 45, had been trying to get pregnant for the past six months, but were unsuccessful.

The World Health Organization defines infertility as a disease of the reproductive system. It is measured by a woman's failure to get pregnant after more than 12 months of regular, unprotected sex.

Roughly 10 percent of couples face the challenge of infertility. The current trend of delaying marriage and parenthood is a vital factor that makes conceiving a child difficult for some.

In Hong Kong, the idea of having a baby is becoming less appealing, as the study finds only 62 percent of women surveyed have a strong desire to become mothers - slightly better than South Korean women's 60 percent.

Regarding self perception of fertility, one-third of women interviewed suspect they have a fertility problem, of which only 24 percent have sought treatment and been diagnosed by a professional.

More than 80 percent never suspect the problem may lie with their husbands.

Male infertility - the inability to impregnate a fertile female - accounts for 40 to 50 percent of all infertility, commonly due to deficiencies in the semen.

Half of surveyed women blame bad luck as the reason for their own infertility, a perception that stands in the way of seeking professional medical help.

"The survey reveals that there is a serious knowledge gap in how the public understands the problem of infertility," said Milton Leong Ka-hong, president of the Hong Kong Society of Reproductive Medicine.

Examples of lack of knowledge:

o Only 15 percent of women know that being overweight by more than 13 kilograms is a risk factor for infertility.

o Only 21 percent of women are aware that a woman in her 40s does not have the same chance of getting pregnant as one in her 30s.

o Only 40 percent know that failing to conceive after trying for a year is classified as infertile.

o Only 38 percent know that a woman who doesn't menstruate is no longer fertile.

Leong said news about celebrities getting pregnant in their 40s can mislead women into thinking age is not a problem.

"Fertility is age related," Leong said, citing US studies that show the success rate of pregnancy is roughly the same from age 22 to 32. Then, the rate falls moderately, and after 36 - significantly.

In Hong Kong, women are typically marrying as they approach 30, meaning a short window for easy pregnancy. Leong recommends women over 30 who plan to give birth undergo a thorough gynecological examination.

As for reluctance in seeking treatment, financial cost is blamed as the primary reason across Asia.

In Hong Kong, 82 percent of surveyed women think fertility treatment is too expensive - higher than the Asia average of 77 percent.

According to Leong, there were 7,000 cases of in-vitro fertilization in the SAR last year.

Only 400 were conducted in public hospitals. The rest were in private hospitals, with patients paying about HK$80,000 for IVF treatment.

Leong urged the government to allocate more resources for public education about infertility. At the same time, more funding should be provided to help struggling couples, and establish more infertility clinics.

Website: www.fertilityasia.com


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