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Tuesday, October 5, 1999 Published at 03:11 GMT 04:11 UK


UK may import sperm

Fears have been raised about the quality of sperm in the UK

By BBC health correspondent Richard Hannaford

Human sperm could be imported into the UK for the first time following concern about a shortage of donors.

[ image: Sperm imports were banned]
Sperm imports were banned
Doctors in Glasgow have asked for the existing ban to be lifted so they can use sperm from Denmark.

The request has been made at a time when there are growing fears about the quality of men's sperm in the UK, and concern that new rules are putting off existing British donors.

To many people in the field of human fertility treatment Dr Richard Fleming, now based at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, is one of the great pioneers.

He was the scientist who developed the technique of harvesting women's eggs by simulating the symptoms of the menopause using female hormones.

A chemical biologist by training, he found his way into the field of human reproduction by accident.

The BBC's Richard Hannaford: "A question mark hangs over the quality of mens semen in the UK"
But he is now very concerned that some basic fertility treatment is being put at risk because of a ban on the importation of foreign sperm.

Some ten years ago the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority - the government quango in charge of this area - did two things.

It banned the importation in bulk of foreign sperm, while at the same time requiring donors in the UK to have their personal details forwarded to them to be placed on a central register.

Ever since then says Dr Fleming, the number of local donors in Glasgow has dropped. Fifteen years ago they had fifteen to twenty men providing a regular supply. Last year the situation became so desperate they had just one man.

With a growing waiting list of couples needing donor sperm and a question mark already hanging over the quality of men's semen in the UK, Dr Fleming has now asked the Human Fertilisation And Embryology Authority - to lift its ban and give him permission to import in bulk supplies of donor sperm from abroad.

Sperm bank

And its to the Danish city of Arhus that Dr Fleming is looking for supplies. With its thriving container port, its also home to one of the world's biggest sperm banks run by Ole Schou.

Standing in front of what look like two vast milk churns Mr Schou picks out a frozen straw containing a single sample. Beneath him in the mist of the frozen nitrogen are ten thousand such samples. "Enough for five hundred babies," he says.

The Bank - called Cryos - has two hundred and fifty regular donors from every race and creed.

They are all counselled about the idea of producing children they'll never know and given regular health checks and tests for things like HIV or Hepatitis.

His books give no names only ethnic orgin, body type, and profession - usually student.

The Bank has been in existence here for twelve years and now exports all over the world, including Iceland, Norway, Nigeria and Singapore. Mr Schou is obviously keen to get the HFEA's ten year ban lifted for business reasons.

But he also believes it may not be legal under EU rules. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is understood to have discussed the issue at its last meeting. A decision is expected to be announced in the next few weeks.

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