A project on fertility awareness by three innovative teenage boys found a lack of knowledge among their peers and even their teachers, writes Helen O’Callaghan.
WHEN a trio of Roscommon schoolboys announced they were doing a project on fertility awareness — which they eventually took to this year’s BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition — the reaction from their peers was one of amusement.
“We were met with laughter and joking about three lads taking on such a female-associated topic,” says Simon Leonard, 16, a fifth-year at Roscommon Community College, a co-ed school with 400 students.
Simon, along with classmates Conor Lavin and Michael Egan, both 17, got the idea for their project — ‘Insight from a New Generation: Fertility Issues’ — from a documentary aired on TV3 about Ireland’s IVF couples.
“We saw it in biology class. It got a discussion going about infertility. We realised that in almost five years of school, we’d never once been taught about the things that can go wrong when you’re trying to conceive.
"You’re told how to do it [to conceive] in Junior Cert Reproductive Science, but never about the problems,” says Simon.
The boys designed a questionnaire with 32 questions, spanning two sections: awareness of infertility and problems associated with it; and knowledge of reproductive science.
“We gave it to TY, fifth and sixth-year students — it’s a very sensitive topic and you need a level of maturity to talk about it. We gave it to all the teachers in our school, as well as to two GPs here in town so they could give it to their patients. In total, we got back 106 surveys,” reports Simon.
It was an “iffy and sensitive” topic, say the boys — and their science teacher Joanne Broggy Shea, who supervised the project, says even the teachers were a little hesitant about responding.
“The questions were so personal. They were afraid the students would match the writing to the answers.”
But in the end, says Michael Egan, all the respondents “filled it in as honestly as they could”.
The responses to both sections showed poor awareness, says Simon, citing some results:
Only 40% were aware that one in six people in Ireland is affected by infertility.
Eight percent believed only females could be affected by infertility.
Almost 80% were unaware that the egg can only live for 24 hours after being released from the ovary.
Some 54% didn’t know when you’re most likely to conceive.
Some 42% didn’t know where fertilisation occurs.
Under 23% didn’t know that infertility treatments cost over €10,000 on average.
The boys say that doing the project taught them about the factors affecting male and female infertility.
“Especially the self-inflicted ones — you’d never think a bad diet could have anything to do with whether you’d have a baby,” says Simon.
“All three of us are big sports heads and you’d never think physical injury from playing sport could put down [adverse] issues for the future. That was shocking to us — that something as traumatic as infertility could come from sports injuries.”
In fact, according to Declan Keane (below right), senior clinical embryologist and founder of ReproMed Ireland, a blunt trauma (kick) or direct injury to the scrotum can cause severe damage to testicles which may require surgery or removal of one (or both in extreme circumstances).
“This could render the man sub-fertile — he may lose the sperm-making capacity of the testicle or he may produce antibodies to his own sperm, secondary to an injury to his testicular function.”
Some of the survey respondents thought the egg lasted 28 days, while others thought it lasted a week.
“Some of these responses were from students but some were also teachers’,” says Ms Broggy Shea, who attributes the knowledge gaps to the fact that often people don’t seek out information until they need it.
The survey also had no participant acknowledging they were concerned about getting pregnant in the future.
While the boys’ project didn’t win a prize at the BT Young Scientist Exhibition, Ms Broggy Shea says it provided a great opportunity for “young adults to present such a sensitive and complicated topic”.
The boys brought along a model of the womb.
“Some students were astonished to see that. The boys started a discussion on fertility that wasn’t there before for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds.”
The three students see the lack of focus on fertility as a “big flaw” in the curriculum.
“We’d like people to be able to talk about this topic, not shy away from it,” says Simon Lenoard, adding that the three are working with their science teacher on a module that will incorporate it into SPHE or Transition Year programmes in their school.
“We’d like to get in some guest speakers and have a workshop.”
Conor Lavin, who wants to study nursing after Leaving Cert, says it’s all about being aware of infertility.
“Because it can knock on anyone’s door.”
SENIOR clinical embryologist and founder of ReproMed Ireland Declan Keane, welcomed Simon Leonard, Conor Lavin and Michael Egan, along with teacher Joanne Broggy Shea, to ReproMed’s IVF facilities in Dundrum, Dublin, recently.
He did so because he was impressed by their choice of topic for the BT Young Scientist Exhibition.
“It did surprise me. Young people have talked about sex for millennia, but fertility is a different subject.
“Often the public assumes, once we’re functioning normally sexually, we can therefore reproduce.
"This is a false assumption. Sex and reproduction are not the same as fertility. It intrigued me that these boys had the wherewithal to separate the two.
“Questions like ‘Did you know the egg is only alive for x number of hours in a monthly cycle?’ or ‘what’s the optimum time each month for conception?’ – these are smart questions.”
The Roscommon students say they got a lot out of the tour.
“It really opened our eyes to all the help that’s out there,” says Michael, while Simon says it was a great opportunity to “see what goes on behind closed doors when IVF comes to your door”.
Mr Keane says the concentration of public knowledge seems to be in the “realm of IVF”.
“It’s missing earlier in the continuum. Ideally, fertility education should be linked into the syllabus, with reproductive and sex education.”
The knowledge gaps revealed in the boys’ survey match the kinds of misinformation Keane often finds among clients.
“For example, men assume if they have an ejaculated volume, they must have sperm – that’s not [necessarily] true.”
* ReproMed Ireland also runs a Cork clinic.
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