Pregnancy and carrying a baby to term are incredibly complex biological processes and it doesn’t come easy to everyone. Infertility affects at least one in seven young couples and can be caused by anything from genetics to lifestyle choices, or as a side effect of common illnesses and diseases.
Despite a historic misconception, infertility in couples is evenly split between men and women. In men, issues with the production of healthy sperm are the main cause and, in women, 40 per cent of infertility is caused by problems ovulating. We have previously debunked some of the other myths around infertility.
Couples are considered to have fertility problems if they have struggled to conceive after spending a year trying for a baby, but there are plenty of genetic illnesses or possible infections that could hinder your chances of conceiving that are important to consider on the journey to conception.
Want to get the latest health news direct to your inbox? Sign up for our daily newsletter HERE
Even if you have fertility problems, there are lots of things you can do to boost your chances of pregnancy. Melissa Snover, a registered nutritionist and founder of the vitamin brand Nourished, says: “Research shows that healthy eating can improve the fertility of men and women at reproductive age.
“In fact, multiple studies have found a link between enhanced fertility and diets with a high consumption of whole grains, unsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, and fish. Whilst alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and saturated fats have been associated with poorer fertility outcomes.”
If you are having issues conceiving after a year, it is important to speak to your GP. However, if you live with or have caught one of these illnesses previously, you should speak to your doctor about your options as soon as you decide to try for a baby.
Regional viruses – Zika virus, Ebola, Malaria
Zika virus is largely spread by mosquitos in some parts of Africa and South America but can also be spread by sexual intercourse. The symptoms of Zika are: a high temperature, a headache, and sore red eyes.
The NHS warns expectant mothers who catch the illness that there can be complications, saying: “Zika virus can harm a developing baby if you get it when you’re pregnant. It can cause problems with the baby’s brain and the baby having an unusually small head (microcephaly).”
It also affects male fertility, with a recent study into viral impacts on sperm production stating: “Zika decreases sperm count and increases abnormalities in sperm morphology up to 90 days post-infection. In a prospective follow-up study in Brazil […] demonstrated that Zika infection led to a long-term detrimental effect on human male fertility.”
Ebola virus is a dangerous viral infection that is spread through direct contact or bodily fluids and kills roughly half of the people it infects. The largest Ebola outbreak was in West Africa in 2016 when almost 30,000 people caught the deadly disease, while there is no conclusive data on impact on female fertility, it is known to harm the male testes.
The viral impact survey says that the male testes function as a “reservoir” for the virus, surviving longer here than in the blood, causing damage to male sperm and hormone production. The study’s authors say: “Survivors of Ebola virus infection have reported complaints of erectile dysfunction (5–8 per cent) and reduced sexual desire (10–12 per cent), probably due to compromised endocrine function of the testes.”
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that infects hundreds of millions of people each year and can be deadly if not treated with antimalaria medication. While some decrease in sperm quality is connected to the illness, the main complication is in pregnant women.
Speaking to the Times of India, Dr Aggarwal, Secretary General of the Indian Medical Association, said, “The vulnerable group when it comes to malaria are children, pregnant women and the elderly. Malaria in pregnancy can cause a low birth weight infant, abortions and premature delivery and should not be ignored and treated early.
“An unexpected abortion of this nature can cause long-term infertility in patients.”
Sexually Transmitted Infections – Herpes, Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and HPV
Herpes is a viral infection that can cause sores to appear around the mouth or genitals of anyone infected, there is no known cure for herpes viruses and, once infected, these sores are likely to return periodically. Though the virus has no-known impact on female fertility, it can cause birth complications so it is important to make your doctor aware if symptoms start to appear.
The common virus has a known impact on male fertility, with the viral survey stating: “Studies confirming herpes-induced infertility are rare, herpes has been associated with low sperm count and reduced sperm motility (89, 90). The virus’s ability to infect almost all organs of the male reproductive tract could infer that it has the propensity to cause direct damage to the spermatozoa and alter the sperm quality (such as reducing sperm count, motility and sperm cells with normal morphology).”
Chlamydia or gonorrhoea will not present symptoms in more than two-thirds of women who catch an infection, meaning that women can carry these illnesses for a long stretch of time and so increase the likelihood of developing complications. Both cause a disorder known as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID).
Repeated bouts of PID will damage the fallopian tubes and can damage the lining of the womb. The most-common symptoms of PID are lower abdominal pain, mild pelvic pain, increased vaginal discharge, and irregular menstrual bleeding.
The NHS advises: “It’s important to visit a GP or a sexual health clinic if you experience any symptoms of PID. If you have severe pain, you should seek urgent medical attention from your GP or local A&E department.
“Delaying treatment for PID or having repeated episodes of PID can increase your risk of serious and long-term complications.”
HPV, or Human papilloma virus, is the world’s most widespread STI and is largely associated with the female reproductive organs, but is thought to impact men as well. In women, some types of the virus can lead to changes in the cervix that could lead to cervical cancer and have a massive impact on your ability to conceive.
The consequences are less severe in men, though a large study by a Beijing reproductive unit has shown that “HPV infection is a risk factor for male infertility. It decreases sperm production and the normal morphology rate, leading to decreased male fertility or even infertility.”
Human Immunodeficiency Viruses can, over time and without antiretroviral treatment, develop into an Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) that attacks the body’s “T cells” which help fight off other viruses and infections. HIV is largely spread through bodily fluids, making unprotected sex and shared needles the main vector of transmission.
With treatment, people who live with HIV face almost no possibility of passing on their infection to a sexual partner. However, the virus is known to harm both male and female fertility.
In men, HIV infection can lead to “hypogonadism” where the testes produce very few sex hormones, damaging both sex drive and effective sperm production. In women, large-scale studies have found that complications from prolonged infection lead to women being half as likely to successfully conceive as a control group.
When trying for a baby, a couple where one or both people have HIV, it is advisable to speak to your doctor about the safest routes to pregnancy and how to prevent transmission of the virus to the foetus. However, HIV positive couples taking retroviral drugs should be able to safely get pregnant and avoid transmission.
Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)
Mumps is a highly contagious viral infection that was once most common in children before the implementation of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. With a recent rise in vaccine scepticism, there have been large UK outbreaks in recent years.
The most well-known symptoms include a swollen neck, headaches, joint pain, and a high temperature. If you experience an infection during or after puberty, it can affect your ability to reproduce.
Mumps will not impact a woman’s ability to reproduce but its symptoms in men can be quite painful. The NHS says that roughly a quarter of all men infected with the virus will develop orchitis, a condition that causes pain and swelling in one or both testicles.
This prolonged inflammation can lead to testicular atrophy, where the swollen testes’ ability to produce sperm is reduced. Between 30 and 50 per cent of testicular orchitis sufferers will see some form of atrophy.
There are no real treatments for mumps, however, being fully vaccinated with the MMR jab is known to reduce infectivity by up to 90 per cent.