Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russians Struggle With Infertility

Boris and Irina have been trying to have a baby for six years.

"I had no idea that it would be such a problem," said Irina, who comes from a large family in Baku. "At first I thought we were doing something wrong, but I was too embarrassed to go to my doctor."

Five years later, Irina, who declined to give her real name, still hadn't become pregnant. Boris, also not his real name, persuaded her that they should seek medical help.

"I had been praying all the time that it was something trivial, that we hadn't been trying hard enough, that I wasn't taking enough vitamins," said Irina, 28.

When the couple's doctor in Azerbaijan told them Irina was infertile, they were devastated. "It is absolutely the worst thing that can happen to a woman," Irina said, through tears. "The very, very worst -- without a doubt."

The inability to have children affects 60 to 80 million couples worldwide, or 2 to 3 percent of the world's population, according to the World Health Organization. The highest recorded levels of infertility are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Russian infertility rates are five times the global average, said Tatyana Ovsyannikova, director of the Infertility Clinic at the Center for Obstetrics and Gynecology in Moscow.

Medical facilities may be improving, but doctors and gynecologists in Moscow say the prognosis, at least for the near future, is gloomy.

"The problem of infertility is getting worse," said Irina Leonova, director of Family Planning and Reproduction Center No. 3, which was set up five years ago and is funded by the local government.

The two main causes of infertility in Russia are abortions and sexually transmitted diseases, Leonova said.

"Women are still using abortion as one of the primary methods of birth control," she said. "Add to that the fact that the younger generation have sex with up to 20 partners before they settle down, and you can begin to understand the gravity of the situation."

In Russia, women typically have one to seven abortions before they decide to have a child, which severely decreases their chances of becoming pregnant, Leonova said.

The more sexual partners a woman has, the more likely she is to contract a sexually transmitted disease, Leonova said.

Chlamydia in particular, because it is virtually undetectable in its early stages, is one of the primary causes of infertility, she said. Secondary catalysts for infertility include environmental conditions, such as air pollution and contaminated water supplies.

Smoking, excess drinking and drug abuse also play a role in rendering both men and women infertile, Leonova said.

She added that occasionally infertility is caused by a psychological barrier, often brought on by depression or stress.

"One woman had been trying to have a baby for 20 years," she said.

"She went to countless clinics, took all sorts of medicines, even visited a witch doctor -- all without success. It was only when she left her high-pressure job at age 40 that she finally became pregnant."

The family planning center, which provides advice, practical help and counseling for almost 2 million people in the northeastern district of Moscow, sees two to five women a week who suffer from infertility.

"Unfortunately, results show that it is often too late to deal with the problem by the time the women come to see us," said Galina Martynova, a gynecologist at the center who specializes in infertility.

She offers nonsurgical treatment, including hormone therapy and other medications, and the success rate currently stands at 30 percent.

Martynova blames the media and advertising, which advocate free and easy lifestyles among young people, for Russia's infertility problem. "The films they show on television today positively encourage them to have promiscuous sex," she said.

Martynova and Leonova agree that the key to solving the growing problem of infertility lies in education.

At present there is no compulsory sex education in schools, and teenagers often leave at the age of 16 with only the vaguest notions of safe sex, they said.

"Of course setting up centers like this one was a giant step in the right direction," said Leonova, who regularly visits schools, hospitals and doctors' offices in the area to raise awareness. "But until every child knows the dangers of abortion and the fundamental importance of safe sex, I fear that the number of cases of infertility in this country is going to get worse."

Kim Kechiyan, director of the Embryon Clinic of Infertility, is more optimistic about the future. The semiprivate clinic, where Irina is currently undergoing treatment, sees 50 to 60 women a month for in vitro fertilization.

"Infertility has always existed," Kechiyan said. "It certainly isn't a 20th-century phenomenon." In his view, infertility is on the rise, although, there are better methods for treating it.

Treatment at Kechiyan's clinic doesn't come cheap. At 3.5 million rubles ($600) for the two weeks of consultation, many cannot afford the so-called miracle cure, which is offered in just 20 centers across the country.

Sadly, given the lack of education about infertility and the enormous cost and relative unavailability of in vitro fertilization in Russia, it seems the majority of infertile couples will never be able to have children.

But for Boris and Irina there is hope that the treatment will change their lives, and Irina is confident of success.

"We have spent untold amounts of money in order to be here," Irina said. "But I sincerely believe that in vitro fertilization will be successful for us."