Scientists at Harvard have found that men who eat a lot of pesticide-coated fruit and vegetables have fewer and less healthy sperm than those who do not. The authors stress that this should not be a cause for panic measures or a change in dietary habits. The study only researched men attending a fertility clinic, who might not be representative of the general population, and while the differences were measurable and statistically significant, they were not huge.
Nonetheless, if you are a man who is worried about your sperm count and fertility…. Whoa, wait right there, what am I thinking? If you are a man, of course you are not worried about your sperm count and fertility, that is simply not something men do. As young bloods we jokingly wish for infertility, allowing us to sow our wild oats without any inconvenient crops being harvested nine months later. In later life, we might continue to stress about our sexual performance, erectile function, the size of the prize or the middle-age spread, but the health and wealth of the little swimmers rarely warrants a second thought.
You might expect there to be one glaring exception to the generalisations above – men who are struggling to conceive with their partners. Even then, however, the picture is not quite what you would expect.
When Liberty Barnes conducted the research for her book, Conceiving Masculinity, she interviewed men who were (with their partners) engaged in fertility treatments. Even among men who knew they met the clinical definition of infertility, two-thirds refused to identify themselves as infertile. Instead they considered themselves as “normal” fertile men who were just having a little medical problem, or who had a lifestyle issue or that the bigger problem was with their partners, not them. Many were deeply distressed and often depressed by their inability to conceive, and yet the psychological and emotional spin they applied was carefully measured to preserve their sense of masculinity. As Barnes’s theory goes, whereas infertile women tend to internalise the problem to their sense of self, feeling personally responsible and inadequate, men are more likely to externalise – like a racing driver who has no problem behind the wheel, but is let down by mechanical problems beyond his control.
It is well established that roughly equal numbers of men and women have fertility problems, and yet in the US there are five doctors specialising in female infertility for every one specialising in men. At a societal and cultural level, we have always considered reproduction and fertility to be women’s business, and infertility to be women’s problem. This is reflected in the medical and pharmaceutical industries. While IVF is notoriously expensive, unreliable and exceptionally invasive for women, alternative drug treatments are again almost exclusively offered to the female partner, if at all.
One shocking example of why this might be is explained by Barnes. In the 1960s, the drug clomifene citrate was developed and licensed to boost ovulation in women. When it became clear that the drug might also be effective in treating some forms of male infertility, researchers applied to conduct clinical trials. The drug company, unconvinced there was any market for male fertility treatments, refused. Now the drug is out of patent and there is no profit to be made in developing the treatment. Fifty years on, clomifene citrate remains unlicensed by the US Food and Drug Administration for use with male fertility and unauthorised by Nice for men in the UK.
Today’s news is the latest reminder that male fertility in the developed west is in crisis. It is estimated that average sperm counts are less than half what they were in the 1940s and every generation of young men has less healthy sperm than their fathers. A study among sperm donors in France calculated that healthy sperm levels were dropping by 2% every single year.
One does not need to fret about apocalyptic, Children of Men-style catastrophes to see the seriousness of the situation. At the very least, the phenomenon spells immeasurable anguish, heartache and medical intervention for ever growing numbers of involuntarily childless couples.
It is of course vitally important that scientists establish why this is happening. Identified culprits and suspects include not only pesticides in the food supply but also oestrogen in water, pollutants in the air, even mobile phones in pockets.
It is highly unlikely that western men will be able to solve the crisis by abandoning our five a day or washing our carrots (not a euphemism). We can begin to make a difference by facing up to the reality of the situation and demanding that the powers that be – political, medical, commercial and cultural – awaken to one men’s issue which has serious implications. Not only for the health and wellbeing of men, but for our female partners and possibly even the very future of the human race.
Source: The Guardian