Couples struggle to get sperm donations

By Hoang Nguyen   August 15, 2019 | 08:53 pm PT
Couples struggle to get sperm donations
Sperm donation scarcity is an issue in Vietnam. Photo by Shutterstock/carroti.
Hong and Sinh were disappointed when their request for insemination was rejected because there was not enough stock in the sperm bank.

This is the second time in three months that they have been denied. 

"We have waited three months for this, but they keep telling us that it’s not our turn yet. I guess we will have to postpone our plan further," Hong said. "My husband and I are about to hit our 40s and we don’t know when we can have our child."

Like Hong and Sinh, many couples are unable to fulfill their desire to have children due to a scarcity of sperm donors.

There are just 518 people who have donated their sperm to 21 centers across the country. But ready-to-use stock in the sperm bank is even less.

Some centers only have one to three samples that are ready to be used. The rest are from people who want to store and preserve their sperm, such as cancer patients and family members of infertile couples who send their sperm in exchange for the sample in the bank.

"When an infertile person wants to use the donated sperm in the bank, they need to find another donor to replace it, so that the operation of the sperm bank can be maintained," said Le Thi Minh Chau, Head of the Infertility Department at the Tu Du hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.

The shortage of sperm donors is obvious, as the demand for sperm is getting higher every day. There are about 700 requests every year for sperm needed to perform in vitro fertilization.

An estimated 7.7 percent of Vietnamese couples are infertile, and in 40 percent of the cases, women cannot conceive. In 33 percent, the men have problems, and in 17 percent, both the male and the female have issues.

You have to pay to donate

One of reasons for the shortage of sperm donors is that many men have moral qualms about donating sperm, while yet others are afraid of criticism from their friends and families.

While more and more Vietnamese people are willing to donate their blood, most are still embarrassed when talking about sperm, let alone donate it, according to local media.

Regulations that donors have to pay for tests also kill the motivation to donate. In most countries, donors receive payment for their sperm or at least get related expenses covered. But in Vietnam, not only does the donor not get paid, he has to spend his own money to do so.

A donor must undergo a health examination including a lot of tests for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, herpes and genetic diseases. 

"Non-payment is the main reason. When I was studying in the U.S., I saw many students donate their sperm to cover some of their expenses," said a Facebook account named Otto.

"The tests alone cost millions of dong ($1=VND23,300), not to mention the travel and healthcare costs. Only rich people can do it," wrote another Facebooker named Hoang Loc. "I feel bad for the desperate couples who have to seek sperm donations in the black market."

Yet another problem for couples wanting sperm donations is the quality of sperm.  

According to the Center for Reproductive Support of Post and Telecommunications Hospital in Hanoi, the rate of men with poor sperm quality accounts for nearly 50 percent. The main reason is due to unbalanced lifestyle, doctors say.

Dr. Ho Manh Tuong, General Secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Association, said there are signs the world over of increasing abnormalities in male sperm.

"Most reports in the world show that the number and quality of male sperm are decreasing in recent decades. The rate of sperm reduction is about 1-2 percent per year. "This leads to a gradual increase in male infertility rates," Tuong said.

For Vietnam, in particular, studies at some hospitals offering infertility treatment have shown that about 90 percent of men in infertile couples have sperm quality below the lowest standard of World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tuong said.

He said infertility and the reduction in the sperm quality are caused by modern lifestyles, such as excessive driving or sitting in front of a computer for long periods of time.

Black market booms

As Loc said, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Many couples opt for the black market to get the sperm that they are desperate for. With just a few clicks on Google and Facebook, one can find sperm samples sold publicly. Some pages even suggest that the fastest way to get pregnant is sexual intercourse between the donor and the buyer.

This is dangerous. Sexual intercourse with strangers exposes a woman to diseases like HIV or herpes. Accepting sperm donations without going through tests is too risky and can affect the life of the child in the future, said doctors.

Another risk that the black market in sperm carries is the chance of inbreeding, mating genetically similar organisms.

In Vietnam, the rule is that sperm of one donor can only be used for one person. Only if a recipient fails to give birth to child can the sperm from a donor be used again.

However, the rule is difficult to enforce because one person can donate their sperm at many places without being detected. In the 21 centers that receive sperm donations in Vietnam, there are only nine that have software to recognize duplication in the system through fingerprints and profiles.

In other centers, a person can still donate many times without the repetition being detected.

Sinh and Hong sigh.

"We know the risks, but what other choices do we have? We will wait for another month, if there is still no good news for us, then the (black) market is the only way to go."

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