The global ‘spermpocalypse’ proves infertility is no longer just a women’s problem, CEO of male fertility clinic says

Across the globe, male sperm count is on the decline—a decades-long drop that has been alternately blamed on pesticides, heavy metals, obesity, and potentially microplastics. More worrying, the decline seems to be speeding up—by the calculations of one male fertility founder, sperm counts have fallen by 50% to 60% over the last four decades.

“’Spermpocalypse’ is one way of putting it, ‘spermageddon’ is another—‘sperm count zero’ is my preferred term choice,” Khaled Kteily, CEO of male fertility startup Legacy, said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in Dana Point, Calif., on Monday.

Call it what you want—it’s concerning. “If you follow the trend, not only is it accelerating, but it is very clearly moving toward sperm count zero,” Kteily said. And it’s possible that in a matter of decades, we could live in a world where people are unable to conceive naturally, he added.

Still, the $30 billion global fertility industry overwhelmingly caters to women, according to Grand View Research—just a small sliver is targeted toward men. That’s also reflected in the social understanding of infertility, which is commonly believed to be a women’s issue.

“We actually call the male partner the ‘silent partner,’” said Dr. Brian Levine, founding partner and practice director at CCRM Fertility of New York. In a common scenario, he said, a woman having trouble conceiving would undergo a battery of tests, get a clear bill of health on all of them, and come to him puzzled—at which point he tells them to get their boyfriend or husband tested. “And the question is always, ‘why?’” he added. “What we have is an education problem here.”

What most people don’t understand, Dr. Levine said, is that only one-third of the time when a couple can’t conceive is it a female problem.Another third of the time, it’s a male problem, and another third, it’s both. Co-founder and CEO of Posterity Health, Pamela Pure, agreed, noting that half the time, there is a male factor issue at play.

Dr. Neel Shah, chief medical officer at Maven Clinic, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily fall into the users of “sperm count zero.” While fertility rates are dropping all over the world, he thinks it’s partly a sociological phenomenon, too. “We talk about sex, but we don’t talk about fertility,” Shah said. Men struggling with infertility deserve more empathy than they’re getting, he added. 

Kteily mentioned a time he gave a presentation to a group of Navy Seals, and it wasn’t until the end of the conversation that they realized it wasn’t something to joke about. “We often say sperm is funny, until it’s not,” he said. 

It’s a touchy topic, especially since sperm is so socially linked to beliefs around masculinity, Kteily said. Still, he suggested that men wondering if they’re affected by the issue get a semen analysis or freeze their sperm sooner, rather than later.

When one audience member asked about the best way men can care for their fertility, Kteily didn’t hesitate: “Freeze it, freeze it right away,” he said.