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COVID Fertility Factor: Couples Trying To Have Babies Experience High Anxiety, Low Sperm Counts

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Around the world, a lot of cradles are sitting empty. It's been a year into the pandemic and we've got a baby bust.

"This is a very stressful world in which we are currently living. Stress is just not great for fertility," remarked Wellesley Economics Professor Phillip Levine.

Professor Levine co-authored a recent Brookings Institution report on fertility. He has tracked worldwide trends for years. He told KPIX 5 that with lockdown restrictions, unemployment and economic uncertainties, the pandemic convinced many couples to hit the "pause" on having a baby.

"To think an environment where you're feeling high levels of anxiety, is that really the moment to be like 'gee, now's a great time to have a child?'" said Professor Levine.

Some couples, however, have continued to try, but so far without success. KPIX 5 spoke to a Bay Area couple that we'll call 'Mary' and 'Tom.'

"It has been an emotionally grueling and heartbreaking experience," commented Mary.

"It's been very, very difficult. It's also been very isolating," added Tom.

The couple has tried to conceive since before the pandemic. They are trying to tease apart the factors that are making it difficult for them, and they realize they both may be contributing to the situation.

"We still don't know. We have some good hypotheses about what might be going on. But the true reason? We will never completely know," said Mary.

Neither has been infected with COVID-19 but emerging evidence shows the virus seems to pack a punch to sperm.

"There have been a number of studies now that show the coronavirus can affect male fertility," said Dr. James Smith.

Dr. Smith is the Director of Male Reproductive Health at UCSF. He has reviewed the data and what it suggests about SARS-CoV-2 and male fertility.

"It's the illness itself, the process of being ill from it that's causing the sperm to be affected," Dr. Smith explained.

The viral infection could cause inflammation of the organs where sperm is made.

"The virus doesn't get directly into the testicle. However, it can cause a lot of inflammation and a lot of sperm cells to die within the testicle," said the male fertility expert.

In one study on men recovering from mild or moderate COVID infections who were previously fertile and had lots of kids, nearly 40 percent had low sperm counts.

In addition, more than 60 percent had increased white blood cell counts in their semen. That's a sign of inflammation.

The virus may also impact the quality of a man's testosterone. The hormone is also made in the testicles.

"It's another reason why people should be really cautious about coronavirus, because it can hurt their sperm and potentially hurt their hormones," said Dr. Smith.

There are other viral threats to male fertility including HIV, Zika, Ebola and mumps.

When it comes to COVID-19 and how long the problem may persist, at this point no one knows. It could be months or longer.

"This is still too new of a problem for us to give definitive answers," explained Dr. Smith.

"It definitely adds a level of stress," remarked Tom.

Mary and Tom have this advice: Keep in good health and get vaccinated when you're eligible.

"We are so extremely excited to get vaccinated," said Mary.

"We're going to jump at the opportunity," added Tom.

In the meantime, fertility experts and the couple recommend that you don't let your guard down, and to take all precautions. That means social distancing, good hand hygiene and wear a mask.

As for the COVID-19 vaccines now available, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine supports these vaccines for use in all individuals.

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