Merck Foundation in partnership with the Indonesian Reproductive Science Institute has offered to train over 300 embryologists from Kenya and Uganda free of charge to improve fertility care in both countries.
An embryologist is a doctor who assists patients with reproductive health issues. The expert is responsible for retrieving eggs, assisting with in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) and running tests on eggs.
Merck Foundation CEO Rasha Kelej said there are very few embryologists in Africa, adding that many patients with infertility issues were suffering and paying more for services.
“The programme opens a dialogue to define interventions to reduce the stigma and social suffering of infertile women in Africa, which includes discrimination and physical and psychological violence,” said Dr Kelej.
The foundation is also supporting African governments and fertility societies to put in place policies to regulate IVF and improve access to safe and regulated fertility care.
“This is practical training for African embryologists and IVF specialists to treat couples and work in sub-Saharan Africa as stand-alone experts, this will contribute significantly to reduce the high cost of treatment,” she said.
The three-month training will be rolled out in February next year in Indonesia. “So far we have trained more than 25 embryologists in Africa. In Kenya, only one doctor got the chance.
“We are opening many opportunities for Kenyan candidates who want to be future embryologists, which will improve access to quality, safe and cost-effective fertility care services for infertile couples,” said Dr Kelej.
It costs about 20,000 euros (Sh2.4 million) to train each embryologist. “As a foundation dealing with infertility issues, we want more doctors on board so that we can give our people affordable services. I am hoping that by the end of the year we will have more applicants,” she said.
Pauline Wanjiku is a beneficiary of the programme. “This is a noble training that aims at increasing awareness about infertility in Africa, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. We got to use hi-tech laboratories which are not available in Kenya,” Dr Wanjiku said.
She said that the training has enabled her to give quality services to her clients. “It cemented my knowledge on embryology, I wish Kenya had such laboratories, we would be far. I am appealing to more doctors not to let go the chance,” she said.
Kenya has only three practising embryologists. The foundation is also building the first public hospital in East Africa to offer IVF services.
The fertility centre, under construction in Kampala, will be opened in March 2018. The centre will improve access to safe and regulated fertility care in sub-Saharan countries including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Gambia, Ghana, Ethiopia and Cote d’Ivoire.
According to a recently released report by World Population Data, prepared by the Population Reference Bureau, Kenya’s fertility rate stands at 3.9 which is below Africa’s average of 4.6 but still higher than the global average of 2.5.
In East Africa, Burundi tops the list with a fertility rate of 5.5, or nearly six children for every woman, followed by Uganda (5.4), Tanzania (5.2), Ethiopia (4.6), Rwanda (4.2) and Kenya (3.9).
IVF is the most common and effective type of assisted reproductive technology to help women become pregnant.
The method involves a man’s sperm and a woman’s egg being fertilised outside the body in a laboratory dish and implanted in a woman’s uterus.
Dr Kelej said she was optimistic that the hospital will cut the high cost of IVF to less than Sh100,000.
For couples seeking IVF, one of the biggest obstacles is the cost, which is not covered by insurance companies.
“In East Africa there is no single public hospital offering IVF, while the cost of services in private hospitals is too high for most patients to afford. The establishment of the IVF centre in Kampala will drastically reduce the cost and make it affordable,” said Dr Kelej.
A session of IVF costs about Sh350,000. And if the procedure is not successful in the first round, the cost can go up to Sh1 million depending on how many times it is done.
She said only five per cent of the population which suffers infertility can afford treatment and that’s why many couples suffer in silence.
“A test tube baby costs about Sh400,000 yet the probability that pregnancy will occur in one cycle is not guaranteed. On average, a couple needs three cycles which cost Sh1.2 million or more,” said Dr Kelej.
“One of my most fulfilling moments is seeing these childless women lead happy and independent lives.
“We are going to raise awareness about infertility prevention and management and break the stigma around infertile women. This is quite a transformation,” she said.