Cassie and Brady Staigh had been trying to have a baby for about three years when they finally decided to seek help.
The Regina couple were referred to a special clinic in Saskatoon and were told that in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment was their only option apart from trying on their own.
After being put on a wait-list in 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic further delayed the treatment as fertility clinics across the country were shut down.
It took multiple trips to Saskatoon from Regina for testing, ultrasounds and injections before the couple got pregnant. They welcomed their first child in June 2021.
“It’s definitely stressful just because there is like a lot of … unknown,” said Cassie, 28.
Besides the physical and emotional stress, the process also took a big financial toll on the Staighs, as they ended up spending upwards of $15,000.
“We got lucky with ours for the first time,” said Cassie. “If we had to do it again, I feel like again, it’s … a stressful financial burden.”
Coverage for IVF treatment — where eggs are removed from a woman’s body and fertilized with sperm in a laboratory before being implanted back into the womb — varies across Canada, with seven provinces offering some form of financial assistance.
It is estimated that on average, one in six Canadians experience infertility, according to the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS).
Yet there are still barriers to getting timely and affordable care, advocates say, with long wait times and limited health-care options.
Many, like the Staighs, have to travel out of town or to different provinces to get help.
Across Canada, there are about 35 fertility clinics that perform roughly 20,000 cycles of fertility treatment in a year, according to Dr. Sony Sierra, CFAS president.
She told Global News there is an increasing demand, with more Canadians seeking fertility care each year.
“We are under-servicing a huge population of Canadians who actually need this care,” said Carolynn Dubé, executive director with Fertility Matters Canada.
“There is a significant need and we don’t have enough clinics to support the need that exists.”
The problem is not unique to Canada, but is affecting people globally.
A new report released by World Health Organization this week found that roughly one in six people worldwide are affected by infertility in their lifetime, which can have “devastating consequences.”
WHO defines infertility as a disease in men or women who are unable to get pregnant after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sex.
The report said most countries have “inadequate” policies and services, with challenges accessing quality interventions to prevent, diagnose and treat infertility.
“The sheer proportion of people affected show the need to widen access to fertility care and ensure this issue is no longer sidelined in health research and policy, so that safe, effective, and affordable ways to attain parenthood are available for those who seek it,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement with the report’s release on April 4.
Why is fertility declining in Canada?
Canada is considered a low-fertility country and its fertility rate has been declining over the past decade.
The latest Statistics Canada data from 2021 reported a fertility rate of 1.43 children per woman that went slightly up after a steady decline since 2009.
Fertility rate is an estimate of the average number of live births a female can be expected to have in her lifetime, according to StatCan.
In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of babies born in Canada fell to a nearly 15-year low and fertility rate hit a record low of 1.41.
Canada is considered a “late” childbearing nation, which contributes to the infertility rate in the country.
In 2021, the average age of mothers at the time of delivery was 31.4 years old.
Advanced maternal age with couples delaying their plans to have kids is the most common reason for people seeking fertility care in Canada, said Sierra.
“Childbearing is being delayed and therefore rates of age-related infertility are naturally increasing,” she said.
In fact, across Canada the number of women and patients accessing fertility services for egg freezing doubled in the last year, Sierra said.
Infertility can be traced back to men 30 per cent of the time and to women 40 per cent, according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada.
The reproductive window gets shorter in your mid- to late 30s, said Dubé.
“So what’s happening is people are finding out that they have an issue with their fertility when they start to try.”
With the disease affecting millions of Canadians, Dubé said Canada needs a federal policy to address this “health crisis.”
“We believe that everybody has a right to parenthood and that we can do a better job here in supporting what that looks like for Canadians and people who live here.”