Despite being inundated with calls when the NHS-funded was first set up, strict profiling and medical screening procedures mean that only around one in 20 potential donors are eventually accepted.
Demand for fertility treatment with donated sperm is rising steadily in the UK but fertility experts say a shortage of donors is particularly acute in the Muslim community and other ethnic and religious groups.
Birmingham was chosen as the site for the unit because of central location and large population as well as its diverse ethnic make-up. More than 100 men have been screened as possible donors but so far only about five have been cleared, according to leading figures.
Dr Sue Avery, Director of the Birmingham Women's Fertility Centre, who helped found the National Sperm Bank, said: “We have to see and screen an awful lot of people to ultimately recruit one donor.
“One of the of the bits of the learning curve we are going through is to make sure that what we are now doing is to look at more targeted publicity rather than a broad spectrum.”
She explained that many initial contacts are screened out because of personal factors including age and medical history before tests are run for genetic predisposition to certain conditions.
Even then only those with a significantly higher sperm count than average are deemed eligible because of the need to dilute the sample for freezing, which kills off some of the sperm.
“If you think about all of those hurdles then we get relatively few that we can move on to the donation process at the end of it,” she said She explained that the shortage of donors is felt most acutely among some minority groups including the Asian and Muslim communities. “People want sperm donors from the same cultural background and particularly the same religious background,” she said.
“We have a difficulty where we have people from a religious background where the religious teaching – depending on which teaching you accept – suggests that being a sperm donor or having donated sperm is outside of the religion.
“And yet these people still need donor sperm and often are under cultural pressure to have children.” But despite the challenges, the clinic's founder, Dr Laura Witjens said last week that she hoped the centre will have “solved the national crisis” within the next three to five years.
Dr Avery added: “I think we hope to achieve a situation where everyone here in the UK who wants donor sperm will have access to an appropriate donor.
“So there is an existing donor bank here, we are looking to add to that and by targeting recruitment try to relieve the situation of inequality where people from different backgrounds have greater or less difficulty.”