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Infertility on the rise in GCC countries due to diets, lifestyle choices: Experts

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Infertility rates in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the wider GCC are on the rise and more than double the global average, according to research, with experts pinpointing the trend on lifestyle choices, dietary habits and undiagnosed medical conditions.

ART Fertility Clinics, which has medical centers across the GCC, conducted in-depth research across the region looking at fertility rates.

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Its data suggests that while the global estimates of infertility are approximately 15 percent, across the GCC is as high as 35 - 40 percent.

“We are seeing a continuous upward trajectory in primary and secondary infertility in our region due partly to cultural and lifestyle-related issues,” Dr. Carol Coughlan, medical director of ART Fertility Dubai’s clinic, told Al Arabiya English. “An in-depth study conducted by ART Fertility Clinics has shown that in the GCC, there are additional factors pertaining to this particular region which contribute significantly to the documented increasing infertility rates.”

She also said the study highlighted “the need to add region-specific counselling and treatment modalities to the current standard evaluation of infertile couples.”

Dr. Coughlan said, for example, the prevalence of obesity is rising globally, and the Middle Eastern regions notably are reporting extremely high obesity rates.

“Sedentary lifestyle, lack of physical exercise and high calorie diets are (also) common contributory factors to the increasing prevalence of obesity,” she said. “An elevated body mass index (BMI) seems to be related to an increased risk of infertility due to hormonal irregularities and ovulatory dysfunction.”

Baby feet. (Shutterstock)
Baby feet. (Shutterstock)

“It has also been documented that obese women undergoing IVF are more likely to respond inadequately to controlled ovarian hyperstimulation and experience higher miscarriage rates,” the doctor added.

“It is very important that clinicians consider lifestyle factors that can adversely affect treatment success but can be modified to enhance pregnancy rates and improve overall health and wellbeing of the Middle Eastern population.”

Globally, Coughlan said there are many causes of infertility globally including advanced maternal age, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, uterine fibroids and also – often underreported – male factors.

“Other factors may vary among countries and may be associated with climate, social, cultural, economic, or religious disparities,” the doctor said. “It is important that every case is assessed individually and an appropriate treatment plan is made to suit the individual requirements.”

More awareness

Professor Dr. Human Fatemi, ART Fertility Clinics’ Groups’ medical director, told Al Arabiya English that infertility is not talked about enough and there is limited awareness about the issue.

“ART Fertility Group hold many educational conferences and meetings to educate both doctors and patients on the many factors contributing to the increasing incidence of infertility rates documented in this region,” the doctor said. “As a group they feel a responsibility to share their knowledge and research findings to increase public awareness of the health risks to which they are exposed and with correct measures can be prevented.”

IVF treatment ( Shutterstock)
IVF treatment ( Shutterstock)

Dr. Monica Chauhan, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and head of the department at Burjeel Day Surgery Center at Abu Dhabi’s Al Reem Island, has also noticed a decline in fertility rates.

Sedentary lifestyle, poor diet

“According to some recent studies and data, there is a decreasing trend in fertility rates in the UAE because of varied causes like increasing obesity and lifestyle choices, including a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy dietary habits,” she said, pinpointing late marriages, delaying pregnancy, and evolving endocrinological problems as common factors that contribute to the increasing infertility rates.

“Studies show that the problem of infertility is rising across the entire GCC region due to these issues…we have been seeing several couples seeking support for infertility issues,” she added.

“The problem of decreasing fertility rates is universal and hints toward common factors like delaying marriage and childbearing as well as following an unhealthy lifestyle and dietary habits.”

Dr. Sandesh Kade, a gynecologist surgeon at the same clinic, said it is important that infertility is seen as both a male and female issue.

“First, male and female factors must be identified to treat infertility,” he said. “After the early identification of the problem, it can be corrected medically/surgically.”

Kade added that each couple seeking to get pregnant can be provided with a “tailor-made” approach.

“As advanced technologies are available, there is an urgent need for proper counseling, early in-depth evaluation by specialists, and identification of the cause so that early intervention can be planned for the couple,” he said.

“Most couples conceive once the right approach is offered to them.”

Twin babies sleeping. (iStock)
Twin babies sleeping. (iStock)

The doctor said medical management for hormonal imbalance and surgical management for uterine, tubal, and ovarian problems can commonly help couples conceive.

“Evolving issues of polycystic ovaries and endometriosis also need appropriate care and management,” he added.

Kade also spoke of the importance of “opening-up” and talking more about fertility issues.

“Infertility as a health problem is not spoken about much,” the doctor told Al Arabiya English. “Awareness can be given through health education / sex education at the school level. Education regarding menstruation, pelvic health, and fertile periods should be offered. Educational leaflets and personal counseling can be offered. The media can also play an active role in creating awareness on a larger scale.”

Dr. Nazura Siddiqi, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology at Bareen International Hospital in the UAE’s MBZ City, also confirmed that that there has been an overall drop in fertility rates in GCC countries.

“Lower fertility rates are not mainly due to economic factors since infertility is very well covered by medical insurances,” the doctor pointed out. “The drop in fertility rate is because of late marriages in women, women getting more educated and more career-oriented so they are postponing marriage and having late first childbirth.”

According to Siddiqi, “These factors lead to difficulty in pregnancy. Age is a huge factor in fertility.”

Other causes of lower fertility rates include changing environmental factors, rising consumption of fast food, increasing incidence of diabetes, obesity, and polycystic ovaries.

“As a specialist, I am treating a lot of women with fertility issues. Many patients require medication to get pregnant and many opt for IVF to get pregnant,” the doctor concluded.

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