Wed, Aug 15, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Suffering in silence: the male infertility crisis

Infertility is a real and painful issue for thousands of Western men, yet little is being done or said about it

By Andrew Anthony  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

“It’s like a judgement on your masculinity,” Glenn Barden said. “You do feel like less of a man.”

Barden, a 48-year-old TV director from London, is talking about an issue that is little discussed in public or the media, but which affects a growing percentage of the population: male infertility.

He spent most of his 30s trying to have a child, and the failure to do so left him depressed, he said, sometimes in tears, and “hiding under the duvet.”

In his case, his sperm count — the main marker of male fertility — was not even deemed problematic.

However, he avoided alcohol, stopped smoking dope, wore loose underpants and followed the approved advice to maximize sperm production, all to no avail — no specific issue was diagnosed and yet his wife did not get pregnant.

He felt as if he was falling short of what was required of him as a man, and that failure made him paranoid, frustrated, envious and angry.

He describes the mindless banality of going along to clinics and giving sperm samples, but also the nervous feeling that he had to give it his best shot. Then came the ordeal of waiting for the results with his wife.

“I remember going to see the doctor to get the announcement of the test and hoping that it wasn’t me. Hoping that it was her fault,” he said.

For Gareth Down, the situation was more disturbing. At the age of 21, when he was already married and after an unsuccessful period of trying to have children, he took a semen test. He learned the result when his general practitioner phoned him at work.

“He told me: ‘You’ve got no sperm. You can’t have a family,’ Down said. “That was just a five-minute conversation. He knew I was at work but he didn’t think twice about delivering the news and hanging up. There was no offer to come in and have a chat, to explain or help with what the impact might be.”

The impact was life-changing.

Barden and Down are far from alone. A comprehensive study published last year by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests that sperm count among Western men has more than halved over the past 40 years. There have been several other studies that have reached similar conclusions, but this was by far the largest.

According to experts in the field, as many as one in five young men have low sperm counts, and about one in two are below the optimum.

“I don’t like the word crisis,” said Richard Sharpe, professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Reproductive Health and one of the world’s leading authorities on male infertility, “but I think it’s fair to say that there is an unacknowledged problem.”

Sperm count varies enormously, from zero sperm per milliliter (spm) of semen to 250 million or more. Above 40 million spm there is little gain in fertility but, below that figure, the fertility graph plummets.

According to the World Health Authority, a count of less than 15 million spm is low, defined as what is called oligozoospermia — which means that there is likely to be difficulty in conceiving, and that difficulty steeply increases as the count moves toward zero.

One study held in Edinburgh showed sperm counts declining from an average of 100 million spm in 1950 to 50 million spm in 1990. Another conducted among sperm donors in France suggested that healthy sperm levels were dropping by 2 percent a year.

It is figures like these that encourage the postulation of doomsday scenarios, familiar from science fiction, in which humanity risks extinction.

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