“Fertility safaris” are taking off in South Africa with the number of foreign women and couples seeking treatment doubling in the past year.

Fertility treatment in South Africa was pushed into the spotlight after a 60-year-old New Jersey woman gave birth to twins after receiving treatment at a Cape Town in-vitro fertilisation clinic.

Frieda Birnbaum gave birth to twins Josh and Jaret in May this year - becoming the oldest mother of twins in the US.

Media reports in the US said that the birth of the twins would increase the number of women to look for treatment outside the US.

Ingrid Lomas, CEO of Surgical Attractions, a company that facilitates medical travel, said there was a growing interest from couples and singles from abroad to use fertility programmes in South Africa.

A clinic in Cape Town reportedly treats between 10 and 15 women from the US a month. At the moment all Surgical Attractions clients are referred to Cape Town.

According to an article on the MSNBC network website, it was likely that the birth of the twins would serve to increase the number of women - especially older women - to seek treatment outside the US.

The Cape Fertility Treatment Clinic said that a woman had to be younger than 45 to undergo in Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) unless she is using donor eggs because the success rate in woman older then 44 was too low to justify IVF. The age limit for women using donor eggs is generally 50, but depends on the health of the patient.

Lomas said on average woman of 35 have a 42 percent chance of conceiving, 35 to 38 a 38 percent chance, 38 to 41 a 30 percent chance, 41 to 43 a 20 percent chance, woman of 43 to 45 a 10 percent chance, and 46 to 48 a five percent chance.

“Unless the patient insists on wanting to take a chance in this regard, our doctors strongly recommend a cut-off point at age 43 for IVF. Egg donation is the recommended method and the cut-off point is dependant on the age and health of the patient concerned,” said Lomas.

In IVF treatment eggs are clinically removed from the ovary and combined with sperm in a dish. The eggs are examined after about 18 hours to see if they have been fertilised. The fertilised eggs are divided into cells the following day and then placed into the women's uterus.

IVF has been used in humans for almost 30 years since the first “test tube baby” was conceived 29 years ago. Louise Brown was born at Oldham General in the UK in July 1978 and since then thousands of couples have used the treatment to have children.

Apart from IVF there are a number of other fertility treatment options for couples who have difficulty to conceive.

Lomas said IVF was the most popular, but there were a number of other treatments that could be used as part of the programme.

“If the sperm is limited, a testis biopsy is performed to extract sperm. Once sperm and blood confirms a problem, sperm donation is recommended. Other procedures include artificial insemination using a male partner's sperm and Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer (Gift), among others,” said Lomas.

In the past few years an increasing number of older women have opted to make use of IVF. However, the treatment is costly - ranging from $13 000 (R93 340) to $25 000 (R195 000) in the US. With the exchange rate, treatment in South Africa, although not cheap, is less prohibitive.

Two procedures resulted in a pregnancy and she started to research treatment options on the Internet.

Lomas said costs depended needs of the individual patient or couple.

“Costs can vary between R25 000 and R30 000, depending on the number of tests and biopsies needed to be performed. These figures excluded courier costs for medication if medication had to be couriered to the patient to coincide with her menstrual cycle commencing while she is still in her country of origin. This is about an additional R 2 000. If egg donation becomes a necessity, costs can climb to as much as R 50 000, ”Lomas explained.

Lomas said compared to overseas, pricing South African costs were very attractive to foreign patients, regardless of flights and accommodation.

“We aim to make sure of what the client or clients require prior to arrival in order to bring costs down to a minimum by avoiding two trips to South Africa when one would suffice. If clients can send us their past medical records and if necessary have some tests performed in their home country in advance of their arrival, we can arrange for one of our doctors to speak with them telephonically and plan their programme beforehand in order to make their one trip to South Africa run extremely smoothly,” said Lomas.