Well, here’s one for my “I never thought I’d see the day” book. Lead headline in The Standard on February 21 – in 60 point (that’s one inch high if you’ve never been a subeditor) all caps type – contained the word “testicles.” Or to be strictly accurate, TESTICLES.
The full headline, which certainly grabbed the eye – or at least the male eye – was “Covid could shrink testicles.” This was a challenging story to illustrate, but The Standard rose to the occasion with a close-up of two presumably male hands crossed over the fly zipper area, in the pose often adopted by footballers forming a “wall” before a free kick. All this would be a mere curiosity if the story lived up to the headline. Unfortunately it did not.
The content of the story was news from a research team at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). To be fair to the reporter concerned, I think he considered it a straight science story for the inside pages. Otherwise he would not have included such mellifluous but opaque phrases as “necrosis of seminiferous tubules”, which don’t mean a great deal to most of us.
But someone couldn’t resist the opportunity for a bit of what I call “medical moralising.” This refers to well-intentioned attempts to persuade you that what is bad theologically is also bad for your health and vice versa.
Thus in my youth we were repeatedly warned that people who masturbated would go blind, for which I believe there is no scientific evidence at all. At my rural grammar school the boarders, generally urban, were told hair-raising legends by the rustic day boys about what could happen to you in ill-advised liaisons with farmyard animals.
The Morecambe branch of the Madame Tussauds Waxworks Museum still featured, when I arrived there in the 70s, a room devoted to the perils of untreated syphilis (long since an eminently curable disease) with models of corroded faces alternating with framed biblical quotes about the wages of sin.
Now I do see that it might seem a good idea, since we are trying to get everyone vaccinated, to start a scare story about Covid messing with your reproductive facilities. On the other hand the two great pools of the unvaccinated are kids – who can hardly be too worried about this yet – and the over 80s, who are mostly, I imagine, past it.
So this desirable objective hardly justifies perpetrating a deception, which started in the first paragraph, and consequently was perhaps the work of a sub editor eager to ginger the story up a bit. This went “Covid could shrink men’s testicles and affect their virility as they recover from the coronavirus, microbiology researchers at the University of Hong Kong have found.”
The word over which there should perhaps have been more thought is “men.” The HKU researchers had done a perfectly respectable study of the effect of the coronavirus on the sex life of… hamsters.
Scientists often conduct studies on the health and habits of small rodents – rats and mice are frequent victims – to which they can do things which would be unethical if perpetrated on humans. The hope, of course, is that the results will “translate” to humans. This hope is rarely gratified.
The question of whether and, if so, how much animal experiments translate to humans has itself been the subject of study. I am not aware of any figure for hamsters but the proportion for mice is only 10 per cent. This would mean that the chances are nine to one against that your seminiferous tubules are safe, at least from Covid.
The HKU people would no doubt reply, and I shall do this for them, that studies of human victims of the virus in the US have revealed some post-recovery reproduction problems among men.
But this raises another question: if scientists elsewhere are making good progress in studying this problem in real humans, is it ethical – is it nice? – for scientists at HKU to sacrifice the sex lives of unsuspecting hamsters to produce information of questionable value about the same problem?
The answer to that question may be that the HKU team were engaged in a primarily veterinary pursuit. They studied the effect of Covid on hamsters so that hamster owners would no longer be distressed or puzzled if their little furry friends no longer bred like rabbits – or hamsters. But in that case this point should perhaps have been made clear in the press release.
Readers who persisted with the story – which continued in the print edition on page 3 – found the good news. Researchers in the US had found that there was a decline in reproductive effectiveness among men who had suffered from Covid, but normal service was resumed after 60 days.
They also found that the average loss of fecundity was only 18 per cent. So, in the view of Boston University prof Amelia Wesselink, it was still worth trying: “There’s not necessarily any harm in trying to conceive shortly after having Covid, but it may just take a bit longer,” quoted The Standard.
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