Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) can have serious reproductive health consequences for women beyond the immediate impact of the infection itself. This sense of wider risk is reinforced by a 2016 study suggesting that there may be a link between a specific strain of the herpes virus and infertility.
HHV-6A, a lesser-known strain of herpes, was present in the uterine lining in 43 per cent of 30 women who took part in the study, all of whom were suffering with unexplained infertility. The researchers suggest that the women's immune response to the virus may make their uterus less accommodating for a fertilised egg.
Herpes viruses have been implicated in male infertility, but unlike other STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, which are caused by bacteria and have known risks for female fertility that FIGO has previously highlighted, there is currently no evidence to suggest that the herpes simplex virus affects fertility in women. Still, viral infections have been considered as possible environmental factors contributing to infertility and the researchers noted that HHV-6A cannot be found in the uterine lining of women who are able to conceive.
WHO describes infertility as a global public health issue. The number of couples of reproductive age affected by infertility worldwide is estimated to be between 48.5 and 186 million, and data from the UK suggests that cases of unexplained fertility account for around 25 percent of cases.
FIGO has spoken out on preservation of fertility and the right establish a family, as well as on the growing recognition of challenges of maternal mental health. Infertility is an often under-recognised part of this spectrum, and can have a strong negative impact on women’s health, leading to shame, anxiety, depression, and guilt.
While advances have been made in Assistive Reproductive Therapies over the last few decades, fertility treatments are still inaccessible to many because of high cost and uneven provision. WHO and others have called for further research into safe, effective and affordable fertility treatment for all women.
Action to tackle infertility and empower women to protect themselves against STIs is part of a wider global commitment to realise women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Women must have the right and the ability to choose safe sex and decide if and when they want to have children, and good sexual health is an important component. FIGO, with our 132 National Member Societies, has a critical role to play in supporting informed, safe and responsible approaches.