Sperm counts have dropped over the years. What used to be regarded as “normal” sperm count is going down. Even the World Health Organisation, WHO, and other reputable health bodies are aware that men are increasingly becoming infertile.
Male fertility is declining to the extent that men are today half as fertile as men of previous generations. The average man is now producing fewer viable sperms and quantity than his father and grandfather did. Today, sperm count around the world is dropping at a rate of two per cent every year and has more than halved in the past 50 years.
Daunting research evidence
Recently, a group of researchers from Hebrew University and Mount Sinai Medical school published a study showing that sperm counts in the US, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand have fallen by more than 50 percent over the past four decades. There are studies suggesting that the trend could be worldwide.
In Europe, records show that an average of 1 in 18 men has low sperm count, and the numbers of men who are affected are rapidly increasing. In Denmark, about 40 percent of the men have low sperm count. The situation is no better even in the United States of America, probably worse. Clinical records show that in Nigeria, 25 percent of couples are infertile, and that half of the causes are due to male factor issues related to poor sperm parameters.
An assessment of hospital data from leading tertiary health institutions revealed that a significant proportion of male infertility cases are either due to low sperm counts or poor sperm quality, or a combination of both.
A paper published almost a quarter of a century ago of a review of 61 studies of semen quality carried out between 1938 and 1990, found that sperm quality was declining.
No less than 40 percent of fertility issues are male related, hence male infertility is becoming more predominant as a result of men being diagnosed with low sperm count and poor sperm motility. More frequently, men are being identified as the reason why infertile couples are not getting pregnant.
A man’s sperms carry half the genetic material necessary to make a complete human being. A woman’s egg holds the other half. Increasingly, experts are reporting incidences of men with genetically fragile sperms.
Such sperm have fragmented DNA chains, which make them to be of low quality and less capable of fertilisation. Male infertility can be caused by various factors such as hormone disorders, illness, injury to reproductive anatomy, obstruction or sexual dysfunction, etc.
These factors can temporarily or permanently affect sperm and prevent conception. Some disorders become more difficult to treat the longer they persist without infertility treatment.
Then there is the problem of endocrine disruptors which increase over the generations, due to a process known as epigenetic inheritance. Phthalates (group of chemicals used in hundreds of household products), and Bisphenol A (BPA) – an industrial chemical used to make certain polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.
Phthalates and BPA mimic estrogen (female sex hormone) in the bloodstream.
If a man has a lot of phthalates in his system, he is said to have been “feminised” and would produce less testosterone (male sex hormone) and fewer sperm. Even women with raised levels of phthalates in their urine during pregnancy are significantly more likely to have sons with testicles that do not produce proper testosterone.
These chemicals are virtually everywhere in the environment, even in food containers and water bottles—they’re unavoidable.
These chemicals can change the way genes are expressed. What this means is that a man’s low sperm count trait can be passed to his sons whose sperm count goes even lower after exposure to endocrine disruptors.
More men having bad sperms
Dr Abayomi Ajayi, a fertility specialist and the Managing director of Nordica Fertility Centre, Lagos, Abuja and Asaba, explains the development:
“We are seeing more men who are having bad sperms, weak sperms and abnormal sperms, and there is a real need to explore a suitable intervention to meet the growing proportion of men that need help in this direction. Initially normal sperm count was 40 million per ml. Then it reduced to 20 million per ml, now it is 10 million per ml and still going down.”
Indeed, it is becoming more challenging for the average man to reproduce his own kind. Normally, a man’s fertility declines as he ages, but the current rate of decline as a result of poor sperm parameters is significant.
Despite fact that many of the sperm conditions affecting male fertility are preventable or reversible, approximately two-thirds of infertile men have sperm production problems, either because enough sperm is not being made, or the sperm is not functioning properly or a combination of both problems.
Ajayi said that over the last decade or so, there has been a marked decline in the sperm parameters of men who presented at the clinic, averaging 3.3 percent every year, and it is as severe all over the world.
Sperm count zero (Azoospermia)
Men who have no (zero) sperms in their semen have a condition called Azoospermia. It is not uncommon even though the symptoms may not be immediately noticeable apart from inability to get your partner pregnant.
Azoospermia could be caused by a problem that keeps the testicles from manufacturing the sperms or that stops the sperms from being released from the body. A sperm analysis is the most reliable way to confirm this condition.
A man can father children till his 70s
“A man can father a child up till age of 70 and for those who are fertile they remain fertile but everybody’s sperm count reduces eventually and there are other reasons especially environmental factors,” Ajayi stated.
“The cells of men divide more than cells of women. That is why we reproduce into older age and people are saying that may actually be where the problem is from because with the division can come mistakes and probably that is why sperm count is getting worse by the day.”
Most men can still conceive a child naturally with a depressed sperm count, and those who cannot are able to opt for fertility treatment. Lifestyle such as stress, smoking, and obesity, all depress sperm counts. The industrial revolution is not helping matters. Since humans started ingesting some toxic compounds that affected the sex hormones, everything has changed.
Medical experts have warned that a drastic reduction in men’s sperm counts is being driven by a combination of feminising toxins in the food supply, harmful chemicals in the environment, and poor lifestyle. Stressful lifestyles, poor diet and environmental factors are significant; however, besides the genetic nature of the problem of male infertility, lifestyle issues are No.1.
ART to the rescue
But as bad as things appear, there is hope and the first step of any successful treatment is the proper diagnosis of the male infertility cause.
Ajayi stated: “Although IVF is taking care of the problem of low sperm count and poor motility, it can only work when there are some sperm to be got from the man, but even if there is none, we can go to the testes to get it. But there are some cases that even then you are not going to get anything, so donor sperm may have to be used.
“While there are efforts to develop artificial sperm in the laboratory from stem cells, it is still experimental, but there are so many technologies to manage sperm problems.
We know sperms contribute to the quality of the embryo, so if there are poor sperms, the quality of the embryo will be bad and there may be no pregnancy at all, or the pregnancy will be lost through miscarriage.
“The poorer the quality of the sperm the higher the number of abnormal embryos from the IVF procedure,” Ajayi remarked.
“Now there is technology to check the DNA of the sperm so we can check the sperms with damaged DNA. The only thing the man contributes to fertilization is his DNA and if that code is already damaged, he will not be giving anything viable.”