Despite a change in UK law in 2005 entitling any person born as a result of donation to request and receive their donor’s name and last known address once they reach the age of 18, Morris believes there is simply a lack of awareness when it comes to donating.
‘That was ten years ago and we know donor numbers have gone up since then,’ she said. ‘We were the only country in the world where donor numbers did go up after the removal of anonymity. There is a shortage because people don’t know they can help each other in this way.
‘We know that these wonderful people are out there. We absolutely know that. It’s about saying, if you feel that you can help and if you’d like to help, check out our website, give us a ring and just see if it’s for you.’
Dr Allan Pacey, chairman of the British Fertility Society, said: ‘Initially, there was a drop in the number of men coming forward but the number of donors has now bounced back. But there still aren’t enough. Interestingly, the characteristics of the guys coming forward are now different too.’
Donors have become older, increasing from 25 years old to 35 on average.
‘Now you can be traced, I think young men are probably still a little scared to donate,’ said Dr Pacey. ‘Whereas older men are probably more open to the idea, especially once they have had families of their own.’
The number of students donating as a way to bump up their finances and secure their Friday night ‘beer money’ has also declined.
‘Now it’s more likely to be an older man, with a professional career,’ said Morris. ‘A lot of the time I hear that they’ve been able to relate to their brother or their friend who are having trouble conceiving and they want to do something themselves.’
In spite of this, the UK is still being forced to import sperm from external sperm banks to meet the deficit, most notably the US and Denmark. Dr Pacey likened it to another Danish invasion – this time by sperm, thanks to the likes of Cryos in Aarhus, which is the world’s largest sperm bank and has more than 400 sperm donors ready to deliver.
With donor recruitment carried out on a much smaller scale in the UK, the existing clinic infrastructure simply cannot compete. Even when men want to donate they may not be close enough to a clinic to do so. Stringent screening tests for sexually transmitted infections and genetically inherited diseases, such as congenital heart malformations, can require regular visits to the clinic and donors to commit to taking time off work. Danish clinics with their extensive resources can therefore seem like a much more efficient alternative.
Dr Pacey believes that a national co-ordinated infrastructure could change this. Through regional ‘hub’ centres, which would implement the majority of services for donors, such as recruitment, screening tests, sample storage and counselling, and smaller local ‘spoke’ centres for patients requiring treatment, donor recruitment and management could be improved. This could be crucial in the early stages of the process when up to 35 per cent of potential donors are lost.
‘In the same way that there is a National Blood Service, we could have a similar thing for sperm. At the moment clinics are working alone, but this information sharing could allow donation services to be evenly spread across the country,’ he said.
‘There is an overall UK shortage but certainly ethnic donors are in even more short supply,’ added Morris. ‘It would be great to co-ordinate things between the clinics, especially where some clinics are doing really well in recruiting ethnic donors, like Birmingham, Leicester and London.’
New research investigating the effect of male age on fertility treatment using donor sperm could also call into question the maximum age for sperm donors, which UK guidelines currently set at 40 years old. Dr Meenakshi Choudhary, from the Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life, found no difference in the rate of live babies born whether the man was in his 40s or 20s.
‘Whilst advancing female age is clearly associated with fertility decline,’ said Dr Choudhary, ‘there is still no consensus about advancing paternal age and fertility outcome.
‘Our results suggest that, up to the age of 45, there is little effect of male age on treatment outcome. Our study shows that we are good at selecting the right sperm donors with the right sperm quality – and that’s why we found no difference in live birth rate despite the increasing age of sperm donors. This confirms the view that a man’s age doesn’t matter in achieving a live birth provided his sperm quality is good.’
Dr Pacey said sperm donation continues to be a ‘balancing act’ but that men who are interested should visit their local fertility clinic to find out more. ‘You can find out about it without committing yourself,’ he said.
– Number of new donor registrations in 2010: 480
– Number of donor registrations required to meet the demand: 500
– A donor can assist up to 10 families
– Donors receive a payment of £35 per clinic visit for expenses
– Donors should ideally produce samples at least once or twice a week over a three to six month period
– Donor-conceived children can request identifying information when they reach the age of 18
– The standard storage period for frozen sperm is 10 years
– Men aged between 18-40, who are generally healthy, can donate
– 1 in every 20 men who applies will be suitable to donate
– Number of donor conception children in 2009: 1,084
– Number of donor conception children in 1999: 1,545
Sources: HFEA, London Sperm Bank, National Gamete Donation Trust, British Fertility Society