AMY Wang, 31, flew to the United States in May to have her reproductive eggs frozen for future use when she marries and decides to have children. ”I want to freeze my eggs at a prime age to ensure a healthy child,” Wang said. “This liberates me from anxieties about a pregnancy late in my reproductive years.”
A senior manager in a private company, she paid more than 100,000 yuan (US$14,705) for the trip, which was organized by a go-between vitro fertilization and surrogate birth agency in Shanghai.
Wang is not alone in delaying children and worrying about the possible risks of late pregnancies. Also prime candidates for reproductive medical tourism are older women finding it difficult to conceive a second child now that they are permitted.
China prohibits unmarried women or women with no medically diagnosed fertility problems from having their eggs or embryos frozen. Chinese actress Xu Jinglei, 43, recently drew public attention to the issue when she revealed she had nine eggs frozen in the US four years ago. With China now allowing a second child and an increasing number of late marriages, reproduction business prospects are on the rise.
Shanghai-based online travel operator Ctrip initiated a seven-day “oocyte cryopreservation” itinerary in April. The lay term for it is “freezing reproductive eggs.” The trip, priced at more than 200,000 yuan, includes blood tests, ultrasonic examination, ovum extraction and a year of ovum preservation at a medical facility. The charge per subsequent year for ova storage is US$695.
Ctrip has declined to give figures on the numbers of women signing up for the trip.
In China last year, there were an estimated 45 million people suffering infertility problems, and the number has been increasing by about 100,000 a year, according to China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission.
About one in seven couples has fertility problems, it said. Zhang Jun, a product manager of Ctrip, expects the number of participants seeking to have eggs frozen overseas will double every year.
“These women have successful careers and no time to think about marriage and children,” said Zhang Xin, founder of IVF, which provides medical services to the tours. “Freezing eggs relieves them of future worries.”
Female fertility declines rapidly after the age of 35. The best time to freeze eggs is between the ages of 30 and 35, doctors said. Last year, the Southern California Reproductive Center received about 250 Chinese patients, with the number increasing by half every year. The average age of patients is 39.5.
“The China market is expansive,” said Mark Surrey, surgical director of the center. “The challenge for us is how to expand public awareness of technologies not presently available in China. We have to respect governmental policies, adapt to cultural differences and dispel misinformation.”
Thailand is also a popular destination for women seeking to freeze reproductive eggs and for medical tourism in general. ”The number of Chinese visiting our hospital for assisted-reproduction services, physical exams and anti-aging treatments soared about 70 percent in the first half of this year,” said Vanna Chuchaisri at the Phyathai International Hospital in Thailand.
The majority of women seeking fertility help at the hospital are in their 30s, and there has been an increase in women older than 40 after China initiated its two-child policy, she added.
The average charge to freeze eggs is 80,000 yuan to 120,000 yuan in Thailand.
Medical tourism in general is gaining popularity among the Chinese, who go overseas for exams, cancer prevention therapies, cosmetic surgeries and even physical therapy, travel agencies said.
More than 500,000 Chinese went overseas for medical treatments last year, according to a report by the China Tourism Academy and Ctrip. Japan, South Korea and the US were the top three destinations.
Online travel operator Tongcheng said its physical examination tour to Japan is very popular. Most of the agency’s tours involve a small number of travelers to protect privacy. Prices range from 30,000 yuan to 70,000 yuan.
Medical tourism is not without its risks. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine said it doesn’t support the idea of freezing eggs as an insurance policy against late childbearing. Even if a woman freezes her eggs at a young age, that’s no guarantee that the ova will produce pregnancy later on, doctors warn.
Chinese patients often are unaware of the clinics to which they are directed. Some are unlicensed. Some put profit above medical expertise.
In 2015, a Chinese woman suffered sudden brain death after undergoing plastic surgery at an unlicensed hospital in Seoul. Another Chinese woman, surnamed Jin, whose plastic surgery failed, said she was coerced into signing a letter absolving the medical facility of all liability at a clinic in Seoul, Legal Weekly reported.
“When disputes occur, it is hard to protect the rights of Chinese medical tourists,” said Yang Yanfeng, an associate research fellow with the China Tourism Academy.
Liu Deyan, an associate professor at the Shanghai Institute of Tourism at Shanghai Normal University, warns those seeking medical services abroad to take care in choosing travel agencies and insist on documentation about medical licenses.