Sperm washing offers hope for HIV positive men wanting to start a family

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"Semen washing is proven to be very effective in the preparation of samples from HIV positive men with negligible viral load." Photo: Getty Images
"Semen washing is proven to be very effective in the preparation of samples from HIV positive men with negligible viral load." Photo: Getty Images

Modern-day methods are making it so that being HIV positive won't stop you from having healthy children of your own.   

To find out more about a treatment called sperm washing, News24 spoke to Greg Tinney-Crook, the Laboratory Director at Drs Aevitas Fertility Clinic based in Cape Town. He explained what sperm washing entails for HIV positive men who want to use their sperm to father a child. 

"There are occasions where the female's partner is HIV positive, but they still wish to utilise the partner's sperm. In these cases, we ensure that the male partner's viral load is negligible," says Tinney-Crook.

"When the patients undergo fertility treatment, the semen sample can be prepared in such a way that any possible HIV is removed from the sample," he explains. "The HIV virus is not attached to the sperm cells themselves, but is rather in the seminal plasma. This is the fluid portion of a semen sample that the sperm are in after ejaculation." 

The sperm washing process

Explaining how the process works, he says "A semen sample from an HIV positive man with negligible viral load is first washed twice with a sperm preparation medium. This concentrates the sperm cells into the bottom of a tube while removing the seminal plasma."

"The sperm cells are then placed onto a 'density gradient'. This is where layers of media with microscopic silicone beads are placed into a tube. Each layer has a different density, and when the sperm is centrifuged through the layers, the dead sperm and other cells are removed, leaving only moving sperm."

"The moving sperm is finally placed into a tube, and preparation media is layered over it. The motile sperm then swim into that media, and they are then recovered and used for fertility treatment."

"Very effective"

Tinney-Crook says that sometimes a portion of the sample is taken for testing to ensure that it is free from HIV, where the remainder is frozen and kept for future use. 

"This method of semen washing has proven to be very effective in the preparation of samples from HIV positive men with negligible viral load," says Tinney-Crook.

Adding that it is part of the fertility procedure that patients undergo during fertility treatments, he mentioned that the cost involved is included in the price of the specified treatment.

"There are no negative aspects to this sperm washing procedure. Rather it is a highly beneficial procedure that assists the fertility specialist and the patients in reaching their goal of a healthy baby," he says. 

He says that the possible risk of infection to the recipient is negated, because the collected samples are HIV free.

We asked Tinney-Crook if sperm washing can be done with HIV positive males who want to donate sperm anonymously to the sperm bank, and he explained that the sperm donation guidelines recommend donors to be HIV negative.

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