Page last updated at 08:55 GMT, Thursday, 19 November 2009

Tackling the male fertility taboo

A conference at Queen's University in Belfast is to discuss the growing problem of male infertility. BBC Northern Ireland health correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly explores a sensitive problem.

Sperm (Science Photo Library/ Eye of Science)
Sperm which have limited movement is a common male fertility problem

"It becomes a very, very dark place that you go into - you think it must be your wife that has the problem - never do you think it could be you the man," William Steenson told me.

Mr Steenson is in his 40s and lives in Carryduff, just outside Belfast.

On the surface, he and his wife Margaret appear to have it all.

But like hundreds of others in Northern Ireland, scratch below the surface, and you find that they lack the one thing they dearly want.

"I never thought I'd be any different from anyone else. My male friends all have kids - why should I be any different," Mr Steenson added.

Several years ago, the Steensons attended the regional fertility centre in Belfast.

Sperm

After many tests they were told their chances of having children were a million to one.

While they were shocked at the news - they were surprised by who was responsible for their infertility.

Once a taboo subject - William no longer feels uncomfortable talking about his problem.

"The problem for me was that when I produced sperm they just went round in circles instead of knowing they could move off in different directions."

In medical terms that problem is known as "poor sperm motility" - or their inability to move towards the egg. It is one of the most common fertility problems in men.

According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, infertility affects one in six couples in Europe with the man being responsible in 40% of the cases.

Stem cells

It's couples - just like the Steensons - which this infertility conference in Belfast will be focussing on.

Sperm
There is hope that stem cells can be used to create artificial sperm

For a change it won't all be about women and IVF but will instead concentrate on men and the development of procedures such as ICSI (basically sperm being injected directly into an egg) and methods that can develop healthier sperm.

Also on the agenda is the potential to create artificial sperm from stem cells.

Sharon Davidson will be at the conference - she is the local organiser of Infertility Network and the organisation More to Life.

"What we want to see is more funding going into male infertility research.

"It's always been as though it's the woman's fault and that was not questioned. But now there's the scientific evidence that men need help just as much as women."

The Steenson have become volunteers with the More to Life, which supports couples who are involuntarily childless.

According to Mrs Steenson, her experience of being told they would be childless can help others.

"I remember the day very well, my whole world came crashing down on top of me. I was so sad, depressed, it was like knives going through me. But in time we got help through counselling - but it takes a long time."



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