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Test tubes Indian, babies foreign

In the waiting room of a private clinic in south Mumbai, a woman in salwar kameez flips through magazines. Stella (name changed) is a Kenyan...

Written by Reshma Patil | Mumbai |
February 29, 2004

In the waiting room of a private clinic in south Mumbai, a woman in salwar kameez flips through magazines. Stella (name changed) is a Kenyan citizen and a London resident, here on a tight four-week schedule.

Her plan: To conceive by an assisted conception technique of in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). Safe and affordable.

‘‘I wanted to go some place safe,’’ Stella (36) told The Sunday Express. ‘‘A place where good doctors are always accessible.’’

Her reason for buying a return ticket: ‘‘IVF treatment in Mumbai is above standards of private Kenyan hospitals, and costs one-third what I’d pay in London.’’

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A precious cargo was recently delivered to the IVF lab at Lilavati Hospital and Medical Research Centre. A woman flew across continents with her husband’s semen in a liquid nitrogen container, packed for safe dispatch to the lab.

At this Bandra hospital, foreign babies grow in petridishes. Four new foreign cases arrive every month.

‘‘Technology now reaches India two to six months after it’s introduced in the West,’’ says infertiliy specialist Dr Hrishikesh Pai, punching e-mail ‘‘follow-up consultation’’ at Lilavati. IVF drugs and procedures are near identical in India and abroad. Yet patients are arriving from UK, USA, Canada to Australia. ‘‘First we got only Asian NRIs, then Africans,’’ says Pai. ‘‘Now whites who used to go to doctors in USA, UK are shifting here.’’ Two discreet, and fussy, white patients flew home after treatment this February.

The attractions are no waiting lists (three months to two years in UK) for appointments and IVF expenses in Mumbai that are one-third or one-fourth global rates due to lower overheads here, lower fees of doctors.

Patients have discovered they can SMS, email and call up cheerful Indian doctors on cellphones at bleary long distance hours 24/7. ‘‘They take back drugs to last three months because doctors’ appointments abroad take forever,’’ says infertility specialist Dr Nandita Palshetkar, at Lilavati. Her helpline cellphone is never switched off to SMS patients like a woman who did not conceive after two attempts in two countries in southeast Asia. She’s now headed home, pregnant.

Stella did not fly down on a medical tourism package deal. Her UK friend recently chose to hop across for IVF in India. Her story—the friend conceived—convinced Stella to book appointments over the Internet.

They choose standard IVF treatments, not involving donor eggs. ‘‘We don’t encourage whites to use Indian donor eggs, because implications for a mixed race baby are complex,’’ says Pai.

With six foreign patients—they landed convinced by chatrooms—crowding his clinic, Dr Aniruddha Malpani says the influx is ‘‘only for expensive treatments not covered by insurance.’’

Indian patients don’t grill her as much as foreigners do, says Palshetkar. ‘‘They quickly realise our expertise matches that of top docs abroad, because we deal with larger numbers of patients.’’

In a discreet Bandra clinic, two or three foreign patients have begun to arrive annually since last year. Here Dr Gautam Allahbadia has introduced a new shared-risk programme for foreign nationals—$11,000 for a complete IVF cycle, plus drugs, for patients below 30. That’s the cost of one cycle in USA. ‘‘We’ll return some money on failed attempts,’’ says Allahbadia, waiting for takers.

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