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Better access to fertility care essential for global health: WHO

Infertility, which affects men and women, is a reproductive condition defined by the failure to achieve a pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.

To compile the new in-depth estimates, WHO analysed all relevant studies on infertility from 1990 to 2021. The research shows that 17.5 per cent of the adult population experience infertility in their lifetime. The UN health agency says the rates are “comparable” for high, middle and low-income countries.

“The report reveals an important truth – infertility does not discriminate,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The sheer proportion of people affected shows the need to widen access to fertility care and ensure this issue is no longer sidelined in health research and policy, so that safe, effective and affordable ways to attain parenthood are available.”

‘Medical poverty trap’

WHO says that despite the prevalence of infertility, diagnosis and treatment – such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) – remain underfunded and patients find themselves priced out.

Many have no choice but to cover the costs out of pocket, often with devastating consequences.

A year’s salary

Dr Pascale Allotey, WHO’s Director of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research, said that millions of people faced catastrophic healthcare costs after seeking treatment for infertility and all too often, a “medical poverty trap”.

According to WHO, people in the poorest countries spend a greater proportion of their income on fertility care than those in wealthier countries.

The UN health agency also quotes separately published new research that it co-funded on infertility costs in low and middle-income countries. This data shows that a single round of IVF, can cost more than the average annual income.

Gender equality factor

“Better policies and public financing can significantly improve access to treatment and protect poorer households from falling into poverty as a result,” Dr Allotey insisted.

Apart from financial hardship, WHO stressed that infertility is also linked to “distress and stigma”, as well as an increased risk of intimate partner violence.

In the face of the multiple negative impacts of infertility on people’s health worldwide, Dr Allottey advocated for the condition to become a priority for universal health coverage. “Fertility care is a core part of sexual and reproductive health and responding to infertility can mitigate gender inequality,” WHO’s report noted.

‘Persistent’ data gaps

Not only are services insufficiently available, but so is adequate research. WHO highlights a “persistent” lack of data related to infertility in many countries.

To remedy this, WHO has called for better national infertility statistics which be “disaggregated by age and by cause” in order to target interventions and support prevention.

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