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Yes, we make babies in test tubes

Babies can be made in test tubes thanks to advancements in reproductive health technologies.

Naturally, childbearing is about a man having sexual intercourse with a woman, who gets pregnant after fertilization of the egg by one sperm. Nine months later, a child is born. There are, however, couples who try and fail to get babies naturally.

Frustrated, some couples especially in Africa barely know where to get answers but mostly resort to herbal medicine and witchdoctors – because infertility is sometimes concomitant with witchcraft and generational curses. In fact, infertility is recognised as perhaps one of the most debilitating and frustrating conditions that couples experience today.

According to a 2018 study titled: “Infertility in Uganda: a missed opportunity to improve reproductive knowledge and health”, 53 per cent of the respondents in this study reports that they would rather contract HIV/Aids than live with infertility.

This points to the devastation infertility can cause to the childless couple. But as technology keeps advancing, Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) are increasingly having an impact on fertility management. In my line of duty, every day I receive various challenging questions about fertility management.

Recently someone emailed me, asking: I have heard that a baby can grow in a test tube; how possible is that? Ideally, this person, whom I later learnt has been in a childless marriage for 14 years, was asking about In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF).

IVF is one of the major treatments in fertility management (pregnancy without sex) having been introduced in Uganda in 2003, with the first IVF baby (Commonly known as ‘test tube babies’) in the East and Central Africa born in October 2004 at Mulago National Referral hospital.

The IVF procedure was administered by Dr Edward Tamale-Sali, proprietor of Women’s Hospital International and Fertility Centre, Kampala; and Belgian Prof Peter Plateau. Meanwhile, the world’s first ‘test tube baby’, Louis Brown, was born in Manchester, UK, in 1978 by the untiring efforts of P. Steptoe and RG. Edwards.

Currently, more than three million babies have been born through IVF. Before starting on IVF treatment, the infertile couples are already under tremendous psychological stress, adding adversely to their problem. Thus, counselling becomes an important and basic part of treatment.

Medically, most women fail to conceive due to fallopian tube blockage as a result of infections and other complications. This implies that a diseased/blocked fallopian tube will not allow the sperm and egg to meet for fertilisation.

Thus, such a couple will need to be helped scientifically to conceive using IVF. During this procedure, the woman is put under treatment to stimulate eggs in her ovaries to grow and be ready to be removed from her body when mature, to the laboratory, where they are handled by an embryologist.

The man provides a semen sample from which good spermatozoa is identified/obtained to fertilise the eggs. Under stereozoom microscope, oocytes are identified and washed in fresh culture media and transferred into the incubation dish.

Incubation is complete in between three and four hours. Meanwhile, semen preparation is done. Once semen analysis is done for motility, quantity and quality, it is also washed.

Then the eggs are transferred into a test tube or petri dish where they mix with the sperm and fertilisation is done under the careful hands of the clinical embryologist. The formed embryos are then incubated for two to three days to confirm fertilisation by observing pronuclei before they are transferred to the womb.

Thus, after crossing the biggest hurdle of life, the baby’s successful journey, as Dr Sandhya Saoji would put it, begins from the caring hands of the embryologist to the loving womb of the mother under vigilance of a gynecologist.

Initially, IVF was meant for women who cannot conceive naturally due to various factors. Today, however, any couple can decide to have babies without having sex; and this is normal because science has proved it.

Simply put, IVF helps mostly in cases where natural conception has failed, or under Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis where the sex of the baby is determined before the pregnancy.

marthur@womenshospital.net

The author is a communications officer at Women’s Hospital International and Fertility Centre, Bukoto-Kampala.

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