Apr 3, 2023 - Health

1 in 6 people around the world experience infertility issues, WHO says

Illustration of a stork carrying an empty blanket

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Approximately one in six people experience infertility at some stage in their lives, according to a new report from the World Health Organization.

Why it matters: Despite the large number of people who are unable to have children, access to fertility treatments remains scarce due to "high costs, social stigma and limited availability," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom in the report.

  • Pascale Allotey, WHO's director of sexual and reproductive health research, said in a press conference that the new numbers "highlight the need for infertility to be raised as a priority for universal health coverage."
  • This is the first time in a decade that WHO releases a report on the prevalence of infertility, which it defined as "the failure to achieve a pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse."

Details: WHO examined data from 1990 to 2021, finding that roughly one in six people globally — 17.5% — have been unable to have a child at some point in their lives.

  • In the Americas, infertility prevalence was higher, with about 20% of people having experienced infertility.
  • The organization found that infertility prevalence did not vary significantly across countries with different income levels. High-income countries had a lifetime infertility prevalence of 17.8% and low- and middle-income countries had 16.5%.

Zoom in: Companies in the U.S. have started expanding health care coverage for fertility treatments in an effort to attract new talent and retain employees, particularly since the Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

Of note: While there have been some studies indicating increasing reasons for concern about fertility, such as a 2022 study showing male sperm counts are dropping, WHO officials said that there is not enough data to understand infertility trends over time.

  • "We hope that it will help building the evidence base so that in future, we can more accurately determine what changes are happening," Gitau Mburu, WHO scientist and report author, said in a statement to Axios.

What they're saying: Fertility treatments are "not cosmetic" nor are they "a lifestyle choice," said Barb Collura, president and CEO of Resolve: The National Infertility Association, adding that infertility is a "disease of your reproductive system" and insurers should offer health coverage for it.

  • The report's findings are "concerning" and highlight "health inequities in the United States and around the world," said Emre Seli, an infertility specialist and chief science officer at the maternal and child health nonprofit March of Dimes.
  • Access to fertility treatments "really depends directly on your income, which is not the case for ... many other [medical] treatments," Seli added.
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