Fertility crisis: sperm counts plummet along with male egos
“At least I am getting a lot of sex,” Mark * joked to his friends about the saga of tryingto conceive a baby with his wife. But, he said, after two years of trying, the jokes were just a way to mask the pain. Only a week earlier he had got the news that it was his reproductive organs, and not his wife’s, that weren’t functioning properly.
And then the doctor mentioned those dreaded words: low sperm count.
"I'm not exaggerating when I say it felt like my world had fallen apart," he said, "because suddenly it wasn't just about having a baby. It was about me."
A massive international study has shown that male infertility is at an all-time high.
The study, done by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that in Western countries men's sperm concentration had dropped by more than 50% in less than 40 years, and sperm count by around 60%.
This is the biggest study yet on the topic and it collated results from 7,500 research projects from all over the world over a few decades.
Lead researcher Hagai Levine said: "This study is an urgent wake-up call for researchers and health authorities around the world to investigate the causes of the sharp ongoing drop in sperm count, with the goal of prevention."
The study did not examine causes, but the researchers said that because the decline was in the Western world, it bolstered previous research that suggested "environmental and lifestyle influences" were at play.
Exposure to pesticides, smoking, stress and obesity were earmarked - all of which form part of the Western lifestyle of many South African men.
Meggan Zunckel, founder and director of the Infertility Awareness Association of South Africa, said there was a "stigma around male infertility, especially in South Africa where it gets confused with masculinity itself".
There is a belief that low sperm count indicates lack of masculinity, but that is not the case
She said: "There is a belief that low sperm count indicates lack of masculinity, but that is not the case."
Her organisation recently ran a seminar on the psychological effects of infertility, and when a Zulu couple shared their story of infertility, they described how it was seen as something "shameful" in their family - a result of something they had done as opposed to a medical diagnosis.
"If you look at the general diagnosis of infertility, a third of it is down to the male, a third is down to the female, and a third is a combination of both. There is a misperception that it is a female health issue, but really, it is 50/50," Zunckel said.
Unfortunately, glossy magazines commonly tackled the issue of infertility from one side only - "the career woman who is trying to fall pregnant".
She said the most important thing was to get the correct diagnosis, even if expensive, then look at treatment options.
The man in one couple she knew had no sperm count at all, but after getting hormone therapy they were able to have twins.
Low or no sperm count isn't always the reason for male infertility, and that is why a diagnosis by the correct type of expert is crucial.
1 in 6 couples struggles with infertility
60% is the decrease in sperm count in the Western world over the past four decades
There can be issues with the morphology (shape) or motility (movement) of sperm. There can be hormonal imbalances, genetic defects and anatomical problems.
"It is a complex issue," said Zunckel, "which is why you cannot simply ask your general practitioner or even the gynaecologist what the problem is. You need to see a fertility specialist."
With the problem on the rise, it is also a reliable indicator of issues affecting male health in general.
"Sperm count may sensitively reflect the impact of the modern environment on male health across the lifespan," the University of Jerusalem said about the new research, "and thus serves as a 'canary in the coal mine' signalling broader risks to male health."
* Not his real name
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