Rasha Kelej. [PHOTO: COURTESY]

Senator Dr Rasha Kelej

During a visit to Uganda, a few years ago for a community awareness campaign, Dr Rasha Kelej met many infertile women and their stories broke her heart.

 “That was the lowest moment of my life,” said the CEO of Merck Foundation, an organization that raises awareness on infertility prevention, management, and male infertility.  

Today Merck Foundation is proud to have assisted many families unravel the taboo subject in many African societies.

Why is society so harsh on childless couples?
Because they perceive infertility as a condition that can’t be treated or prevented. Unfortunately, women suffer the most. It is considered to bring shame to the family, which is not the case. Bet it has to do with our obsession with kids.

Most people only know about infertility, but don’t exactly understand what it means…

There are two types of infertility; primary and secondary. Primary infertility is when a couple fails to conceive after at least one year of trying, without using birth control.

Secondary infertility is the inability to become pregnant or to carry a baby to term after previously giving birth to a baby. The two are caused by almost the same factors.

What are these causes of infertility?
Some African traditional, cultural, and religious practices combined with low-resource environments are linked with higher levels of non-genetic and preventable causes of infertility.

Untreated sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unsafe abortions, and
female genital mutilation. Poor nutrition and exposure to smoking, leaded petrol, and other environmental pollutants may also lead to infertility. Among men, the major culprit is previous genitourinary tract infections, though it doesn’t apply to all cases.

Based on your experience, how can married couples enjoy their relationship even when they have no kids?
While most couples have a desire to have children, being unable to bear a child due to certain medical reasons should not hamper their relationship. They should know infertility is not a death sentence. It is a condition that can be prevented or managed.

Further, it should not be a blame game. They should work together to fight it. In fact, I tell couples, it should bring them closer. For example, if it is the wife with the problem, the husband should be supportive and accompany her to all the clinic visits.

When women have infertility issues, most men resort to remarrying.

In many cultures, women are solely blamed for failing to conceive. They are treated with a lot of disgust and in some cases, they even face violence. Most women are not aware that 50 percent of infertility cases affect men. And I agree, most men prefer to remarry, not knowing they are the ones with the problem.

On the other hand, women can’t get married again because of stigma. She will give up the fight. This is of course, unfair and incorrect.

I once met a man from a remote village in Uganda, who married 35 times, not knowing that he was infertile! We need to create a culture shift and sensitize communities about this issue. 

 Before walking down the aisle, couples go for HIV testing. Would you advise couples to go for fertility tests before committing to marriage?
 Fertility or infertility should not be a reason to commit or not commit to a marriage. Couples should support each other if they find out they can’t have kids. It is a shared responsibility.

Why is adoption not popular in Kenya especially for infertile couples?
Adoption is a great option. While Kenyans are warming up to adoption, the social perception needs to change. We have so many orphans and offering them that parental love is a welcome idea. 

 What are your thoughts on fertile couples who chose not to have kids?
 It is a personal choice. However, both parties should agree. Also, couples should not decide to have a child because of societal pressure.

There are women who swear by certain foods to determine gender/ single/multiple births; is this medically proven?
Eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight will boost fertility. I am not aware of any scientific literature supporting food to determine the gender of the baby or single/ multiple births.

 What do you consider your greatest achievement since the launch of the ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign? 
 Merck Foundation is making history in many African countries which previously did not have fertility specialists or specialized fertility clinics before ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ intervened. We were the first to train the first fertility specialists in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, Guinea, and Zambia.  

We have more than 10 First Lady acting as ambassadors in Botswana, the Republic of Burundi, Central Africa Republic, Chad, Ghana, Niger, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Guinea Conakry, and Zambia. 

This speaks volume about the work we are doing. I am really proud that we are all joining hands to break the stigma of infertility. 

Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first-ever Public IVF centers in Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda.  The sky is the limit.