Thursday, February 13, 2003

Soldiers heading to war keep genes on active duty

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tristate soldiers preparing to head off to war are leaving behind legacies. Area clinics report military men are banking sperm in preparation for the worst as war with Iraq looms.

Soldiers' fears range from injury and death to exposure to toxins and biochemical weapons that could damage their fertility.

Little data is available on the effects of many chemical and biological weapons on male fertility, because most efforts have centered on preventing exposures and assuring immediate survival. Agents known or suspected to affect male fertility include:

Mustard gas


Benzene, toluene and other common environmental chemicals


Pesticides and other agricultural chemicals

A study from Duke University found that a preventive "cocktail" administered to protect soldiers in the Gulf War damaged fertility in lab animals. The cocktail contained the insect repellant DEET, the insecticide permethrin and the anti-nerve gas agent pyridostigmine bromide.

Some Gulf War veterans groups and family members worry the combination of vaccinations given to soldiers, including the anthrax vaccine, might have impaired soldiers' fertility.

Charles Gillespie of Falmouth, 33, a lieutenant in the Kentucky National Guard, doesn't even know if his unit will be called up. But, at his wife Angela's suggestion, he's banking sperm just in case.

"It's just on the off chance that there is a deployment," he said. "You never know what's out there. I'd rather be safe than sorry."

"There's so much potential for getting gassed and poisoned and all those other things that it's making guys think twice about protecting themselves, and I think it's a great idea," said Dr. Glen Hofmann, director of the Bethesda Center for Health and Fertility at Bethesda North Hospital.

The Gillespies were married in October 2000. Angela Gillespie, 24, has been on fertility treatments for five months.

"Basically, I didn't want to let the fact that he might be going away stop the whole baby-making process," she said. "I wanted us to continue to try even though he's not here, so as soon as there was the risk (of deployment), I thought immediately of what we might do, and artificial insemination came to mind."

More than 20 soldiers have banked sperm through the Center for Reproductive Health at Christ Hospital, said Dr. Dan Williams, director of the center. "I saw the same thing during the Gulf War," he said.

Hofmann said "10 or 12" soldiers had banked sperm through his clinic. "They're not pushing and shoving to get in the door, but that's a zillion people compared to normal."

Banked sperm is frozen in liquid nitrogen and can be stored indefinitely, Williams said. The stored sperm can be thawed and used to fertilize a woman's eggs through artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization.

Military personnel will face a spectrum of risks if the United States and its allies go into combat in Iraq.

Chemical and biological weapons and radiation, along with physical trauma, can damage men's fertility.

"They're being shipped off, No. 1. Some of the males don't have partners. Some do," Williams said. "They obviously have concerns about what might happen to them, not just physical injury but also other factors like toxic exposures. That's an unknown.

"So they want to sort of take out an insurance policy to allow them to have their own biological children in the possibility that some untoward event occurs, even as far-reaching as death."

Men across the United States, along with Canada and the United Kingdom, are storing sperm.

Little is known about what exact effect chemical and biological weapons could have on men's reproductive abilities, said Dr. Terry Olar, director of laboratory medicine at the Center for Reproductive Health. But studies on animals have shown that such weapons damage the testes.

"There are several pathways that some of these agents can cause problems for men in the formation of sperm cells, whether they formulate sperm or not, and the quality of the sperm cells," Olar said.

A study released last month by Duke University Medical Center showed that a combination of three agents used to protect Gulf War soldiers against insect-borne disease and nerve gas exposure damaged testicular cells and sperm production in lab rats.

The study could explain why some Gulf War veterans have experienced infertility, sexual dysfunction and other related symptoms, study authors said.

Rats exposed to the combined chemical agents and moderately severe stress similar to what a soldier might experience in combat suffered the most extensive damage, the study showed.

Given all the unknowns, Olar said, he might advise men to bank sperm before shipping out.

"By saving sperm now, they at least have some chance of fathering a child if they're exposed to one of those agents," he said. "If they're interested in having children later, storing sperm is an inexpensive option. We do it for men who are cancer patients before they start chemo or radiation."

Cryopreservation (freezing sperm for later use) is a one-time cost of $139 at Christ's center. The annual storage fee is $68.

He said he'd be concerned himself if he were shipping out "especially in that age range. Some of these guys aren't even married yet, so they're definitely looking toward the future."

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