No fertile men in 50 years as sperm counts slide?

Blame it on growing levels of stress, obesity or pollutants in the air, counts of the microscopic sperm are falling and causing mega concern across the globe. One estimate holds that it has fallen by as much as 50% in the last 50 years.

Dr P M Bhargava, who worked out the Indian guidelines for assisted reproductive techniques (which are soon expected to become the law), said the trend of falling sperm counts was noticed in the mid-90s in the West. "Some doctors in India believe that sperm counts are falling locally too," he said, adding that the western studies show that counts have been falling by 2% every year. "At this rate, there would be no fertile men left in the next 40-50 years," added the Hyderabad-based Bhargava, who is counted among India's foremost scientists.

A couple of years back, a study from Scotland of 7,500 men who attended the Aberdeen Fertility Centre between 1989 and 2002 showed that average sperm concentrations fell by nearly 30%. Another study from Copenhagen found a newer reason apart from alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity for this decline -endocrine disrupters. "Many everyday substances such as plastic buckets (or milk bottles) emit chemicals that are similar to estrogen, the female hormone,'' said Bhargava. It is exposure to the female hormone-like chemicals that could be reducing the sperm count in men, believe a school of scientists. Commonly used pesticides such as DDT and dioxins have been named as culprits.

Many disagree. Infertility specialist Dr Aniruddha Malpani said endocrine disrupters are just one of the unproven theories floating around to explain falling sperm counts. "It is the most famous theory, but it hasn't been proven yet,'' he said. Rising infertility is a problem for both men and women due to late marriages and delayed child-bearing, he added.

Dr Anjali Malpani gives a statistical break-up of how sperm counts have been falling steadily over the decades. "When we started Mumbai's first sperm bank two decades ago, we would get donors who would easily have counts of 40-60 million spermatozoa per millilitre,'' she said. But in 2009-end, the World Health Organization (WHO) revised its definition of normal sperm count to 20 million per ml. So, the Malpani sperm bank only rejects potential donors whose counts are below 15 million per ml. "In 1950, the WHO itself had pegged the normal count as 113 million per ml," she added.

Sperm donation itself has undergone a sea change in Mumbai. "Two decades ago, when we set up the city's first sperm bank, we were asked how we could use such a word openly. It was difficult to get donors because men would say they didn't want lookalikes walking down the streets 20 years hence," said Anjali Malpani.

Now, Mulund-based sperm bank Trivector gets six to seven potential donors walking in every day. "About 70% of them are rejected because of the stringent selection criteria," said Trivector's Dilip Patil, adding that college students come in to donate for extra money. "We get students from Mulund, neighbouring Navi Mumbai and western suburbs that are close by.''

However, very few from south Mumbai opt to donate at his clinic. "We do have some donors who come in swanky cars and donate because it is a noble cause. There is a CEO who drives down to Mumbai to donate sperms on a regular basis," added Patil.

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