WHO finds that 1 in 6 people experience infertility globally

a newborn baby's feet

Image credit: Luma Pimentel via Unsplash

An alarming report published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals the urgent need to address fertility care. In early April, it was announced that 17.5% of the adult population experience infertility across the world.

This works out to be about 1 in 6 people worldwide, and the regional rates are comparable. There is limited variation between high-, middle-, and low-income regions, indicating that this is a major health challenge globally.

Infertility is defined by a failure to achieve pregnancy after at least 12 months of regular, unprotected intercourse between a male and a female. It can be caused by a range of disorders to each of the reproductive systems, such as endometriosis or poor sperm quality.

“Infertility is a major health challenge globally.”

In many regions of the world, such as Europe, East Asia and North America, low fertility rates are a source of government concern. If each generation shrinks, societies face the issue of ‘population ageing’. This often entails a series of socioeconomic issues: if there are more elderly people relying on social welfare systems than there are young adults contributing to them, the country and its citizens can experience severe economic and social strains.

As well as its demographic consequences, infertility can have devastating impacts on individual wellbeing. Social isolation and psychological stress are well associated with experiencing infertility, and the psychological impact of infertility is noted to be comparable to that of cancer, HIV, and chronic pain.

Yet, those experiencing infertility are faced often with structural and financial barriers to medical care. Due to underfunding in research and development, fertility treatments, such as medications, intrauterine insemination, In vitro fertilisation, and the use of donor sperms and eggs are incredibly expensive. The Director of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research at WHO, Dr Pascale Allotey, reportedly calls this a ‘major equity issue’, as those from lower-income backgrounds are subject to a ‘medical poverty trap’, should they need to seek care.

“Stigmatisation, shame, and lack of support can be a disincentive for people to seek treatment.”

In addition to socio-economic issues is the role of social barriers. For many people, infertility is a sensitive and even taboo topic. Stigmatisation, shame and lack of social support can be disincentive for people to seek treatment. This may be particularly true for the LGBTQ+ community as they are especially vulnerable to discrimination in relation to ideas of conventional family structures. 

Currently, the solutions to infertility remain underfunded and inaccessible. This report is hoped to raise awareness for the prevalence of infertility, so that new health research and policy can be dedicated to tackling it. At the core of this work must be an effort to make fertility care accessible. By addressing the financial and social barriers that might be acting, new fertility policies should ensure people have access to the resources and support they want, should they be the 1 in 6 that experiences infertility.