One in six people worldwide affected by infertility: WHO

UN health agency calls for cheaper and more accessible treatments to help those trying to start a family.

An embryologist at a fertility centre in India preparing a sample. She is wearing plastic gloves, a blue hair cover and mask with IVF written in red on the front.
IVF treatments are increasingly sought after in countries across the world [File: Ajay Verma/Reuters]

About one in six people around the world are affected by infertility during their lifetime, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO), which says more work needs to be done to improve access to affordable, high-quality fertility care.

The UN’s health agency says about 17.5 percent of the adult population experience infertility, with little variation in the prevalence of infertility between different parts of the world.

Lifetime prevalence was 17.8 percent in high-income countries and 16.5 percent in low- and middle-income countries.

“The report reveals an important truth – infertility does not discriminate,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general said in a statement.

“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 for those who seek it.”

Infertility is a disease of the male or female reproductive system, defined by the failure to achieve a pregnancy after 12 months or more of trying. For those affected, it can cause significant distress, stigma, and financial hardship, affecting their mental and psychosocial wellbeing, the WHO said.

Most medical care for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infertility, including assisted reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), remain underfunded and inaccessible to many due to the high cost and limited availability.

Fertility treatments are often funded out of pocket.

The UN agency found in a separate report on the costs of infertility treatments that the direct medical costs paid by patients for a single round of IVF are often higher than the average annual income.

“Millions of people face catastrophic healthcare costs after seeking treatment for infertility, making this a major equity issue and all too often, a medical poverty trap for those affected,” Dr Pascale Allotey, director of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at the WHO, said in the statement.

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

The WHO report was based on studies on the global and regional prevalence of infertility from 1990 to 2021.

Source: Al Jazeera