Male infertility

For many decades, young men in Denmark reporting for national service have been asked for a sperm sample. No-one ever knew what the purpose of this was, but a few years ago these samples helped scientists to prove a disturbing trend among men.

The records showed that the average sperm count of a healthy, average 18-year-old man had halved over the past 50 years.

These figures, explains Dr Johan van Rensburg, a fertility specialist at the Medfem Clinic in Sandton, simply confirm what he is encountering more and more in his practice. "One in every five married couples has trouble falling pregnant, although the extent of the difficulty varies from one couple to the next. Up to 60% of the time the main cause of the problem lies with the man, while in 20% of cases there is a problem with both the man and the woman", he explains.

He also confirms what all of us know: that the male ego is a delicate thing. Unfortunately, many men look at themselves and think, "It can't be me. Not this fit, muscular body." But there is no connection between appearance, fitness and IQ when it comes to fertility and sperm fertility.

What causes it?

According to Dr van Rensburg, reasons for male infertility can arise before birth. Substances that could be harmful or poisonous to unborn boys include the now banned insecticide DDT, and seemingly innocent things such as clingfilm and soya.

"Both clingfilm and soya are definitely linked to female hormones and too much of them can seriously impair a man's ability to produce sperm," he says. Another reason for fertility problems later in life – often encountered in baby boys but seldom identified at that stage – is the occurrence of a varicose vein immediately next to the spermatic cord.

"This increases the temperature of the testes. It is usually diagnosed in adulthood, only when the man realises that his partner is not falling pregnant. By then we usually have to look at alternative means of fertilisation.

"The childhood illness, mumps remains a significant cause of infertility. The older a boy is when he contracts it, the greater the chance of complications. So mothers must ensure that their children are vaccinated as babies or toddlers."

What can you do?

The bad news is that a man without sperm will not be able to impregnate his wife. The good news is that fertility treatment is a highly successful science these days, and there are other ways in which a man and a woman can have a child together. But, cautions Dr van Rensburg, in vitro fertlisation is unfortunately a very long and costly process.

"For me, it is always tragic to treat a man when I know that he could have avoided it if he had simply had the right information early on and applied it correctly," Van Rensburg says. 

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