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March 30, 2020

The rise of "coronababies”: COVID-19 pandemic and fertility trends

Family planning is changing for many who are concerned about the potential impact of COVID-19 on their pregnancies, health as pregnant people, or newborns. How will the COVID-19 pandemic affect worldwide fertility trends?

Learn more about COVID-19 and male fertility.

Are people having sex?

The CDC’s recommendations for “social distancing” may be cutting down on sex. Anna Muldoon, a PhD candidate researching infectious disease and former science policy adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services, advises that dating and casual sex is risky at the moment. “The short line on this is all sex is close contact,” she explains. “So there’s no way to have it without risking transmission.”

Even among long-term couples, caution around passing the virus may be placing distance between partners. Muldoon recommends that, if one partner may be sick, they should “sleep in their own room.” The CDC also recommends separating members of the household who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus or who have any symptoms.

The stress and anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic can also feel all-encompassing. Stress is known to lower libido for both women and men, due to its impact on key sex hormones. Anecdotally, couples are feeling the impact of anxiety around the pandemic on their sex lives: as one women explained to Rolling Stone, despite being quarantined alone together, she and her partner “definitely haven’t been feeling the romance vibes the past two weeks or so just because we’ve been generally stressed.”

Will there be a coronavirus “baby boom”?

A common trope is that, when people are stuck together in close quarters—such as before a storm—there’s a “baby boom” nine months later.

But that concept isn’t really demonstrated by the data. In fact, high-mortality events, like pandemics or natural disasters, are associated with significantly lower birth rates nine 9–10 months later. After the influenza pandemic of 1889–1890, for example, the lowest birth rate was seen nine and half months after the height of the flu’s fatality. (The same can be seen during the 1918–1920 flu pandemic.)

Researchers speculate that this drop in fertility could be due to impaired conception, “possibly due to effects on fertility and behavioral changes,” as well as an increase in pre-term delivery and maternal and fetal deaths.

However, it’s common, historically, to see a “rebound” of birth rates in the months or years after 10 months post-pandemic, when those who have put family planning on hold deem it safe to try to conceive.

The future of fertility post-corona

The probable drop in births during and following the coronavirus pandemic comes amidst the lowest rates of birth and fertility in recorded history

In July of 2019, the CDC reported that the US birth rate had fallen to an all-time low of 1.72 children per woman. Infertility affects approximately 15% of couples, and nearly half of all cases of infertility are attributed to a male fertility issue.

There are economic, cultural, and biological factors at play here. For example, people are marrying less (and later). As of 2015, the average age at first marriage was 29.3 for men; just 50 years before, in 1965, that average was 22.8. As a result, the age of parents is increasing, too—since the 1970s, the median age for men becoming first-time fathers has increased by 10 years, from 28.1 to 38.2.

Sperm health decreases with age, which means couples with older men have a higher likelihood of infertility and miscarriage. We know, for example, that women with partners over the age of 35 have a higher likelihood of miscarriage. We also know that sperm acquire a new genetic mutation every 8 months.

Our modern environment and lifestyles, too, are likely impacting fertility rates. Studies of sperm counts demonstrate that men today are half as fertile as their grandfathers were. Researchers have proposed that pollution, diet, or exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system could be to blame, but the cause isn’t 100% clear.

What is clear is that—even post-coronavirus—male fertility is in crisis.

Learn more about male fertility.

COVID-19 basics

A little background: The novel coronavirus—dubbed SARS-CoV-2—and the infection it causes, COVID-19, began in the Wuhan province of China in late 2019. Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that cause many different illnesses, ranging from the common cold to severe diseases like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The current coronavirus is being referred to as “novel” because it’s never been seen before in humans; the virus is zoonotic, meaning it made the jump from an animal to a human.

COVID-19 is a lower respiratory illness; symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and fever. In severe infections, more likely to be experienced by the elderly or those with compromised immune systems, it can lead to pneumonia and possibly death. According to the CDC, the novel coronavirus is spread through close contact via respiratory droplets released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Cases of COVID-19 have increased rapidly since it was discovered, and it’s currently recognized as a global pandemic. To contain the spread of the disease, public health officials are recommending masking, “social distancing” measures such as limiting contact with groups of people and closing buildings, and ever-important hand washing.

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