'Maharashtra needs to start sperm banks for cancer patients'

17-year-old chemo patient writes to govt after he fails to find inexpensive bank to preserve sperm

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At the age of 17, cancer-patient Hemant Mehra may have risked becoming infertile after chemotherapy affected his sperm count, but the teenager is determined to ensure that others don't suffer his fate.

Until a few weeks ago, Mehra, who has been diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg, had been running from pillar to post to preserve his sperm after doctors told him that his sperm count would be affected during treatment. As only private hospitals have sperm banks and the storage fees are expensive, he was forced to choose against preserving them. But, Mehra has now written to the state health department with the help of a city-based NGO, requesting that authorities start a sperm bank in state hospitals soon.

Too expensive to preserve
"Patients suffering from bone or blood cancer are usually given high doses of chemo, which affects their sperm count by 80 to 90 per cent. The damage caused by chemotherapy is almost incurable and can affect their fertility," said Dr Shripad D Banavali, head of department of paediatric oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital (TMC), where Mehra is receiving treatment.

Private hospitals like Lilavati, Bombay and Wadia and independent banks charge anywhere between R20,000 to R26,000 for sperm preservation each year.

NGO Pratham is already helping Mehra's family foot the R5 lakh bill for his cancer treatment. "His father passed away a year ago and his mother makes ends meet by sewing. In such a situation, it was impossible for him to pay the hefty sum required for storage of his sperm," said Rajeev Patil, member of Pratham that is helping the patient's family.

After consultation with the NGO, the 17-year-old wrote a letter to state health minister Dr Deepak Sawant, highlighting the plight of patients like him. "When I was advised by doctors to preserve my sperm, I made several inquiries with hospitals in the city. But, the rates are so high that I decided against it. What shocked me is that there is not a single sperm bank at a government hospital in Mumbai," said Mehra, who began chemotherapy three weeks ago.

Rajeev Patil of NGO Pratham and Dr Shripad D Banavali
Rajeev Patil of NGO Pratham and Dr Shripad D Banavali

Still a long way to go
According to city oncologists, with the rate of cancer survivors increasing due to better quality of treatment, the state government needs to set up a sperm bank soon. "Chemo kills all cells in the body that divide quickly. As sperm cells fall in that category, they become an easy target," said Dr Sajid Qureshi, cancer surgeon, TMC.

While TMC has floated a proposal to start a sperm bank in their new centre at Haffkine Institute in Parel, the state health ministry is also contemplating opening one.

Confirming the development, an officer from the Directorate of Health Service, said, "We are working on the plans, but it would take sometime as we need budget allocation and a place to start it."

State health minister Dr Sawant was unavailable for comment.

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