'Still a miracle': Australia's first IVF baby celebrates her 40th birthday

Candice Thum and Rebecca Featherstone Jelen are marking 40 years of IVF in Australia.
Candice Thum and Rebecca Featherstone Jelen are marking 40 years of IVF in Australia. 

The birth of Australia's first IVF baby Candice Thum on June 23, 1980 was hailed as a "miracle".

This week, as Ms Thum celebrated her 40th birthday, she said while a lot had changed since her birth one thing remained the same - the ability of IVF to help men and women achieve their dreams of parenthood was still "miraculous".

"When my parents went through IVF, it was actually a case of collecting a single egg on a natural cycle and hoping," Ms Thum (nee Reed) said. 

Candice celebrates her first birthday.
Candice celebrates her first birthday. 

"IVF was miraculous then and despite the technological advances, IVF is miraculous now."

When Ms Thum was born in Melbourne 40 years ago the chance of conceiving a baby via IVF was about two per cent. Today, about 50 per cent of women under 40 who start IVF treatment will end up having a baby.

Ms Thum was born after her parents underwent what was then cutting-edge fertility treatment as part of a joint research program by Melbourne and Monash universities. She was not only the first IVF baby born in Australia but the third in the world.

Ms Thum's mother Linda Reed had grown up not expecting to have children of her own after a case of appendicitis as a child left her fallopian tubes severely scarred. However she and husband John unexpectedly fell pregnant with Ms Thum's older brother, but then struggled to have a second baby. 

That's when they became one of several couples to enlist in Melbourne Royal Women's Hospital's trial program and became the lucky couple to have the nation's first successful IVF pregnancy.

Since Ms Thum's birth more than 200,000 babies have been born in Australia as a result of assisted reproductive technology (ART) - the equivalent to one child in every classroom across the country.

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 "That's a lot of IVFlings making their mark on the world," Ms Thum said. "It's a far cry from when I was the only IVFling, in my region and in my state, let alone in my school and classroom."

Despite the massive media interest in her birth 40 years ago - which included a 60 Minutes television crew being present in the room when she was born - Ms Thum says her childhood was very normal.  However, from time to time something would happen to remind her of the fact her birth would always be a part of Australian history.

Writing in this month's Maire Claire magazine, Ms Thum told of the time she discovered she was the subject of a Trivial Pursuit question.

"My brother called me and said he'd been playing with friends when he was asked the question: 'What is the claim to fame of Candice Elizabeth Reed, born in Melbourne on June 23, 1980?'," Ms Thum wrote. "It was funny because being in the spotlight was not at all a part of my everyday reality."

Today Ms Thum has two children and lives in New Zealand with her husband and family. She is co-founder of Fertility Matters, which raises awareness and provides education about fertility. She founded the organisation alongside Rebecca Featherstone Jelen, who is a fellow "first generation IVFling". Ms Thum is also the patron of Australia's national infertility charity AccessAustralia.

Her aim now is to help couples struggling with infertility just as her parents did all those years ago. Ms Thum said while success rates had improved in the past 40 years, the personal cost to those battling infertility remained the same.

"For the one-in-six Australians who will face fertility issues, the hardships, the heartache and the emotional journey they'll go through hasn't changed at all," she said.

"As we celebrate the first 40 years of IVF, we need to enter the next 40 focusing on better educating young adults on fertility health, fertility preservation, diversity of families, and that's just the starting point."

Former Fertility Society of Australia president and senior IVF specialist with IVF Australia Professor Michael Chapman described the doctors involved with the first generation of IVF babies, including Ms Thum, as pioneers. 

"IVF was treated as an experiment and a lot of people were opposed to it," he said. "Today, it is a medical treatment accepted by more than 95 per cent of the population.

"If you are under 40, over 50 per cent of people who start IVF will have a baby after two or three cycles. A decade ago, that would have been 30 per cent."

Professor Chapman said advances in assisted reproductive technology should see this increase to 60 or 65 per cent in coming years.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of IVF in Australia, AccessAustralia this week launched the Keep the Hope fund to ensure support and education for parents in the future, with $1 from every $4 raised going to Fertility Matters. 

Donations will help develop education modules, provide support forums, inform policy, work with health professionals and researchers, and reach out to the broader community.

"It's really important that organisations such as AccessAustralia and Fertility Matters continue to do the work that they do," Ms Thum said.

"Keep the Hope fund will help us to continue to advocate for better awareness on all things fertility and champion the stories of everyone facing fertility issues."

To donate to AccessAustralia's Keep the Hope fund, visit access.org.au