The number of potential sperm donors applying to one UK clinic fell sharply after 2000, 'almost certainly' due to growing awareness that changes to the law would remove donors' right to anonymity, a new study shows. The researchers, based at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at LIFE, have called for urgent action to attract more donors, and for uncertainties over the release of donor information to be allayed. British people conceived using donated egg, sperm or embryos will be able to ask for identifying information about the donor when they reach the age of 18, following a law change that came into force on 1 April 2005.
The new study, published early online in the journal Human Reproduction, focused on over 1,100 potential donors who applied to the centre between 1994 and 2003. It found that there has been a downward trend in the number of men applying to be sperm donors, falling from around 175 in 1994 to just 25 in 2003, with the sharpest drop occurring from 2000 onwards.
The proportion of applicants eventually accepted as donors also dropped during the study period, because of 'stringent criteria aimed at improving standards of recruitment', according to the authors. Overall, only 3.63 per cent of all the applicants were accepted as suitable donors. The researchers also looked at the type of men coming forward, and found that 88 per cent of applicants were aged under 36, more than half were students without a partner, and over three-quarters had no children.
Team leader Jane Stewart called for a change in tactics in recruiting donors, following the change in the profile of applicants. 'There was a significant increase in the number of men who had partners and, after the Department of Health announcement that anonymity would be removed, there was a substantial fall in the numbers of students', she said, adding 'we need to get to the right groups, including minority ethnic groups, and inspire them to act'.
Currently, egg and sperm donors receive £15 for each time they donate, plus 'reasonable expenses'. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)'s recent sperm, egg and embryo donation (SEED) review recently recommended that donors should, in future, be compensated for lost earnings - to a maximum of £250 for each 'course' of sperm donation or cycle of egg donation. Dr Stewart said that the review, with no changes in the criteria for acceptance or exclusion and little to offer in the way of extra remuneration, had not really changed the issue of recruitment.
Dr Stewart also called for the HFEA to publish details of how information about donors will be released. 'Although it is effectively 18 years from now, current donors ought to have at least some idea of how that is to be managed', she said. Commenting on the study, Clare Brown, of the charity Infertility Network UK, said: 'there is no doubt that there is indeed a sperm donor crisis'. She added that urgent action was needed, to look at how successful clinics manage their recruiting, so this information could be shared with clinics across the country. Anyone interested in becoming a donor can contact the National Gamete Donation Trust for further information.