A person's reproductive health is the maintenance of the health of his or her reproductive systems, which include respectively the penis and the testes, and the vagina, uterus, and breasts. The reproductive health spectrum also includes pregnancy and infertility.
The reproductive systems
The female reproductive system comprises ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, vagina, breasts, and external genitalia. The ovaries hold the eggs and release them during ovulation. When an egg is fertilized, it travels through the fallopian tubes and is implanted in the uterus. The uterus, through the placenta and umbilical cord, nurtures the fetus for approximately 40 weeks, at which time the woman delivers.
The male reproductive system consists of the testes, epididymis, vas deferens, urethra, seminal vesicles, prostate, and penis. During intercourse, the penis—the copulating organ—becomes engorged with blood and becomes erect. Upon ejaculation, mature sperm cells are ejected into the vagina after moving through the vas deferens, passing the seminal vesicles and prostate gland. After the semen is deposited in the vagina, the sperm swim through the cervix, into the uterus, and up into the fallopian tubes. The egg is fertilized in the fallopian tubes, if indeed an egg is present.
A person is infertile when he or she is unable to perform the function of reproduction. Infertility is considered a disease and affects more than six million men and women in the United States, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).
Infertility disorders in men include azoospermia, in which no sperm cells are produced; and oligospermia, in which few sperm cells are produced. Although the number of cases is rare, infertility can be caused by a genetic disorder. Typically, male infertility rests with the testes, responsible for the production of sperm. Disorders of the thyroid, adrenal and pituitary glands, liver, and kidneys—as well as infections and trauma to the testes—can contribute to male infertility.
Further, hazards in a man's workplace can affect his ability to have healthy children. These are called reproductive hazards, and include radiation, chemicals, drugs (legal and illegal), heat, and lead. Still, every man does not suffer the effects of workplace hazards; frequency, length, and method of exposure (inhalation, skin contact, ingestion) are a few of the factors that affect whether the man is exposed to any dangerous degree. These hazards, unfortunately, can arrest or slow the production of sperm. If there are fewer sperm to fertilize the egg, there will be fewer chances that the egg will be fertilized; if there are no sperm produced, the man is termed "sterile." If the workplace hazard has prevented sperm from being produced at all, the man is permanently sterile.
As of 2001, it is projected that reproductive issues will be the focus of greater attention in the United States in years to come. Reproductive issues are already included in the National Occupational Research Agenda (www.cdc.gov/niosh.com) coordinated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
The vast majority of individuals suffering from infertility—85 to 90%—can be treated with medication or surgery. The remaining percentage of persons may turn to in vitro fertilization, in which conception takes place outside the body and the embryo is implanted in the uterus by a physician.
Meghan M. Gourley, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,