Published Thu, 2011-03-31 11:34; updated 33 weeks ago.
In Britain, there is a national shortage of sperm donors. In the West Midlands, the problem is even more acute.
This is because the region's rich ethnic mix includes a range of genetic diseases. In order to eradicate such conditions, some couples wanting to start a family seek out donated sperm.
At the moment, though, sperm from a range of ethnic backgrounds is extremely hard to come by – which is one of the main reasons for the setting up of the Birmingham Sperm Bank.
The bank, part of Birmingham Women's Fertility Centre (BWFC), is aiming for 50 sperm donors a year. This would be enough to cut the long waiting lists to almost nothing.
"The shortage of sperm donors is a real national problem," explains Jackson Kirkman-Brown, scientific, research and development lead at the BWFC. "In the Midlands particularly, there is a large number of people, especially in the Asian community, with infertility problems and genetic disorders such as the skin condition Epidermolysis bullosa that they really don't want to pass on. Using donated sperm is a way to clear a disease from the family."
The West Midlands' ethnic diversity also provides the opportunity to collect much-needed sperm from different backgrounds.
"At the moment, if you're mixed-race, Afro-Caribbean or Asian, there aren’t any supplies of sperm around the UK," says Jackson. "There is lots of sperm available from tall, blond men from the European Sperm Bank, but that’s not much use if you’re Asian."
The chronic shortage of sperm that has spurred the BWFC into launching a campaign to attract donors to the bank is due to several factors.
Firstly, there is the fact that one in six couples trying for a family in the UK experiences fertility difficulties. Of those, just over half will be due to a male problem. This can range from the man having no sperm to being infertile because of childhood cancer. Single women and lesbian couples have also heightened the demand for sperm.
Men are put off
But as the need for sperm has risen, so the number of men willing to donate has dropped.
"There are two things that put people off donating sperm," says Jackson. "You can’t make money from it (when you donate to an NHS centre) just as you can't when you give blood. Yet blood donors are admired, while sperm donation is considered a bit seedy – even though by giving sperm you’re doing something even more miraculous, not just for a couple but for future generations."
Men are also put off donating sperm because of the change in UK law which allows children born from donated sperm to contact their biological father when they reach 18.
"On the flip side, when we spoke to people as part of the surveys we've done, men said they'd simply never thought about it as being something they could do."
Until now, the fertility centre has had an average of just three sperm donors at year.
"The centre has always had a policy that people could approach us to donate sperm," explains Jackson. "But this didn’t come close to satisfying the need for donors. So we now have a dedicated unit to recruit donors. This involves distributing leaflets and posters to spread the word. And already we’re getting a response. We'd like 50 donors a year, but if we only get 20 or 30 we'll still have done really well and have been able to cut significantly the waiting list for sperm."
Due for review March 2013