Male infertility accounts for almost 50% in all cases of infertility, yet women still shoulder the bulk of stigma or blame when a couple is unable to conceive. This is one of the common infertility misconceptions that the Merck Foundation aims to change through its Merck Mother than a Mother initiative.

Although the initiative was initially launched in 2015 to empower infertile women in developing countries, the Merck Foundation has since expanded their campaign to include a key message that #MenToo face infertility challenges and should be encouraged to speak up about their infertility and join the treatment journey with their wives.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) data more than 180 million couples in developing countries (which is one in every four couples) suffers from primary or secondary infertility.

It’s estimated that that one in six couples in South Africa struggle with infertility, a topic which unfortunately still remains a taboo topic in many cultures and is associated with shame. For example, married women who are unable to bear children are often cast aside for a new wife, while men are deemed ‘less manly’ by their peers if they fail to conceive.

Prevention is better than a cure

In sub-Saharan Africa, infections such as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are the primary cause of infertility in up to 85% of women seeking infertility care, compared to 33% worldwide. It’s therefore essential for governments to run sexual health education campaigns to inform the public about safe sex and the dangerous consequences that untreated STIs and unsafe abortions can have on infertility.

Infertility in men can be caused by a number of lifestyle factors including excessive alcohol consumption; smoking; drug abuse and exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticide and chemical exposure.

“In many cultures, women are blamed for infertility when, in fact, as research shows, about half of the causes of infertility is on the man’s side,” said CEO of the Merck Foundation, Dr Rasha Kelej.

Dr Kelej noted that infertility in men should not be linked to sexual ability or manhood.

“Almost all types of male infertility can be treated. It is also much easier to treat male infertility than female infertility — and remember that it only takes one good‚ healthy sperm to create a pregnancy‚” said Dr Kelej.

Greater awareness is needed

As part of the More than a Mother Campaign, the Merck Foundation recently hosted a media conference in Nairobi, Kenya where a high-level panel discussion took place consisting of health ministries, policy makers, fertility experts and media partners on driving a cultural shift around infertility. They focused on addressing the challenges and solutions needed to improve access to regulated fertility care in Africa.

During the event, Dr Kelej called on the media to support the foundation to combat infertility stigma by educating the public.

“This is a great initiative by the Merck Foundation to educate media about infertility prevention and male infertility. How to treat and prevent infertility is very critical, especially in Africa where about 85% of infertility cases are caused by untreated infectious diseases,” said President of Africa Fertility Society in Nigeria, Professor Oladapo Ashiru.

Capacity building

Dr Kelej noted that some African countries lack fertility specialists or specialised fertility clinics, for instance Sierra Leone. As a solution to this problem, the Merck Foundation is currently training doctors who will be deployed to give treatment in these identified countries. The foundation supported the establishment of the first public IVF centres in Ethiopia and Uganda by providing the clinical and practical training necessary for their staff.

To date, the foundation has provided more than 50 candidates in 29 countries across Africa and Asia with three to six months clinical and practical training for fertility specialists and embryologists. The Merck Foundation also plans to support the establishment of the first public IVF treatment facility in Tanzania.

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