If it weren’t concerning enough to learn that sperm counts have been reduced by 50% over the last four decades, and that, every 8 months, men produce a new genetic defect that passes on to their children, a recent warning from Christopher Barratt, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Dundee in Scotland, ought to sound the alarm bells loud and clear about the crisis in male fertility.
In fact, Barratt, scheduled as the keynote speaker at the 9th Congress of the Asia Pacific Initiative on Reproduction (ASPIRE 2019) in Hong Kong, said that the world had not “woken up” to the consequences posed by male infertility, which include long-term economic and other societal impacts.
In a press release, Barratt said that the general perception among most people “is that all is well in the world”, but that this viewpoint amounts to magical thinking. What’s more, he added, a dearth of knowledge and information about male fertility means that couples seeking to reproduce often must resort to “costly and invasive intervention for the female partner”.
Barratt concluded, “In a world in which we claim to be addressing inequalities between men and women, the fact that the female partner often has to bear the burden of male infertility is an infringement of basic human rights and dignity.”
Worldwide problem, regional differences
Barratt also suggested that while it was possible that environmental factors could play causal roles in the 40-year decline in sperm counts, the exact reason for the disturbing drop amounted to “educated guesswork”.
For instance, a great deal of research exists about male fertility in Scandinavian countries, while other regions of the world, including South America, Asia, and Africa, possess small amounts of “definitive data” on the subject.
Barratt had high praise for Australia, which recently announced a plan to invest millions of dollars in a national strategy to boost men’s health, including research into the causes of male infertility as well as ways in which to prevent it. This comes on the heels of news of a “baby drought” Down Under; fertility rates in 2015, for example, had fallen to their lowest rates in 10 years.
“Australia has grasped the nettle on this issue,” he said. “It is a shining light example that needs to be replicated around the world.”
Raising awareness among 60% of the global population
Barratt’s presence at the ASPIRE 2019 conference was expected to raise awareness about male infertility in a region that is home to 4.3 billion people, or 6 in 10 worldwide. He and his colleagues stressed the need to motivate medical professionals to grapple with the vital health issue, saying, “Now is the time for an urgent wake-up call” – one that engages professionals and patients alike to push for more to be done.
One area which could likely benefit from immediate attention, said Barratt, was in promoting more positive lifestyle choices that would assist men in making smarter decisions that would aid their reproductive health.
Another area needing immediate improvement, he said, was in the development of “new diagnostic tools or medical management strategies for male infertility” that go beyond ICSI (Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection, in which sperm is directly injected into female eggs that have been gathered from IVF, or in vitro fertilization).
Barratt went on to note that, since semen samples analyzed in different laboratories can sometimes yield different results, this process could be improved and standardized so that diagnostic procedures become more reliable, leading to better prognostic applications.
Targeting replacement rates
One unfortunate consequence of declining sperm counts is that, as the chances of conception lessen and men and women delay having children until they are older, population replacement levels also fall, particularly in countries of the European Union.
As a result, some countries have fewer workers to pay taxes that can fund entitlements for aging populations – a pattern that cannot continue for long without dire economic consequences for old and young alike.
“The combined impacts of these factors equate to a very negative outlook,” said Barratt.
While statistics currently do not paint a healthy or positive picture of male fertility worldwide, they do indicate worsening problems that, while not solvable overnight, can be mitigated by proactively storing assets before potential damage affects them in the form of environmental or other hazards.
Acting sooner rather than later provides the best possible protection. In many practical ways, the world may just be depending on it.