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Pesticides: Why more men are fast becoming infertile

Fertility among African men has been declining due to low sperm count, a new report says.

The top trigger of this low sperm action, the continental study says, is the proliferation of pesticides including DDT, endosulfan, malathion and a host of others.

The research says declining sperm count is now the leading cause of infertility in men globally but highest in Africa.

In the last 50 years, sperm count in the African male has declined so dramatically that it is approaching the international red line, the report says.

Due to changed lifestyles, studies have shown sperm count to have declined by 57 per cent around the globe in the last 35 years.

Now an evaluation of all fertility data in Africa, including Kenya, shows sperm count to have declined by 72 per cent since 1965.

Kenya is among several countries which until recently has been using DDT in the control of malaria, especially in Western highlands.

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Evidence published last year by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Nairobi-based Sino-Africa Joint Research Centre showed unhealthy levels of soil contamination with DDT and endosulfan in Western Kenya.

The main concern, says the study, is that sperm count in infertile African males is quickly approaching the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) cut off point. As per the WHO, your sperm count is considered lower than normal if you have fewer than 15 million sperm per millilitre of semen. The new study, by the Lincoln University College, Malaysia, University of Nigeria and Medical University of Bialystok, Poland, appears in the current issue of the journal African Health Sciences.

Study stunned medics

“Some of this is tied to modern lifestyle,” says Dr Jamleck Muthuuri of Mombasa whose study of male infertility in Kenya features prominently in the continental analysis.

The continental study largely agrees with the only national infertility study carried out in Kenya in 2008 which had stunned the medical fraternity.

The survey, sponsored by the Division of Reproductive Health at the Ministry of Health and the United Nations Population Fund, had overturned popular belief that untreated venereal diseases were the leading cause of infertility in Kenya.

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The national survey had found about 16 per cent of Kenyans of reproductive age infertile, with the numbers almost equally shared between the two genders. Coordinated by the then head of reproductive health at the ministry Dr Josephine Kibaru, the researchers found low sperm count was actually the major cause of infertility in Kenya males.

Azoospermia (no sperm) and Oligospermia (low sperm), the national study concluded, were the major causes of infertility among men; responsible for 41 per cent of all male infertility in Kenya. The new study confirms low sperm count as the main cause of infertility in men and most severe in Africa.

The study says exposure to agricultural pesticides and heavy metals are the principal triggers of decreased sperm count in men in Africa. The notorious pesticides DDT, DBCP, and edosulfan — all in use in Kenya — were some of the chemicals shown to be sterilising the African man.

The other suspect affecting the production of sperm in men in Africa are the rampant aflatoxins which have been confirmed prevalent in local ‘ugali,’ milk and sorghum.

Studies by the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in October showed that milk, maize, and sorghum on sale in many retail outlets contain unhealthy levels of aflatoxin,

“The infertile men with aflatoxin in their semen showed a higher percentage of spermatozoa abnormalities than the fertile men,” says the continental study.

Increasing consumption of alcohol, tobacco and other psychoactive drugs are also being blamed for the low sperm concentration in African males.

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The researchers say the two substances are the principal causes of a condition called hypogonadism or the diminished activity in the testis.

“We found hypogonadism a significant problem in 23 per cent of our study participants,” says Dr Muthuuri, now an orthopedic surgeon in Mombasa.

In adulthood, the researchers say this condition can be brought about by several lifestyles such as in professional drivers and cyclists.

Men involved in long hours of driving or cycling, are exposed to dangerous fuel fumes, noise, heat are also at a risk of infertility.

Perching the laptop computer on the lap while working, long soaks in the bath and excessive bicycling, the research warns, can cause the temperature in the scrotum to increase enough to impair sperm production.

An interesting finding in the continental and Dr Muthuuri’s studies was the feminisation of males as a significant pointer to infertility. Dr Muthuuri found feminisation, sometimes called sisfication, where males develop female characteristics such as enlarged breast in 12 per cent of his study group.

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