A 2017 global study over 40 years indicated that male sperm counts have dropped by 50% in those years. In her new book ‘Count Down’, leading reproductive epidemiologist Dr. Shanna Swan, who was part of the 2017 study, hypothesised that at the current trajectory, men will stop producing sperm by 2045. As alarmist as this may be, it does bring into focus the fact that there is an underlying problem that needs attention. “The current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival,” says Swan.
Fertility, both male and female, is on the decline. There is a common misconception that infertility is due to the female. However, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US, about 9% of men and 12% of women have experienced infertility problems. Low sperm count is a major contributor to male infertility. The number and quality of sperm cells have been declining over the last few decades at a rate of 1% per year. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption as well as stress are contributing factors to this downward trend. The other significant contributor are hormone- altering chemicals found in everyday products such as food, shampoos, flame retardants and pesticides. They contain phthalates which lowers the body’s testosterone level. Much of the damage to a male’s sperm count happens in the womb due to the mother’s exposure to these hormone-altering chemicals during pregnancy.
While much of the research data is from industrialised nations, South African urologist and sexual health expert Dr. Shingai Mutambirwa says the factors affecting male fertility are also to be found in developing nations.
Swan recommends that we need entirely new products made from safer materials. Government intervention and regulation, corporate responsibility and people making better choices will have a positive impact on this urgent issue. Consumers can reduce the quantity of processed food consumed, choose products that are phthalate free and swap plastic food storage containers for glass ones.
Scientists are attempting to find solutions to the fertility problem. Researchers at the University of Penn School of Medicine have created a new model that enabled them to identify genetic defects in sperm that cause male infertility. This development could lead to new ways of correcting sperm. Male infertility specialist Dr. Paul Turek developed a procedure called Sperm Mapping or Fine Needle Aspiration Mapping. It is a nonsurgical procedure that examines the testes through fine needle sampling in a grid like pattern to locate sperm pockets. The sperm can then be retrieved. A study of about 600 men found that sperm mapping successfully located and extracted sperm that led to pregnancies in one third of men who had previously undergone other procedures.
While the causes of low sperm count may be known to many, the severity of the situation may not be fully understood by the general public. While not entirely hopeless, there is cause for concern. Mitigating this risk requires a multipronged approach where governments, the private sector and the general public together address the causes of decreasing sperm counts. Hopefully the scientific community will also come to the rescue through a better understanding of this phenomenon.
By Faeeza Khan
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Image credit: Louis Reed