Finland suffering shortage of younger blood, stem cell, sperm donors

For reasons not entirely clear, too few young men in Finland are donating blood and stem cells that could help save lives.

Last year Antti Lehtinen, 24, donated stem cells that saved the life of a child with leukemia. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

Over six litres.

That's how much of himself Antti Lehtinen, 24, a Kuopio resident, has donated to help provide medical care for others. Starting while he was doing his national military service, he has so far given blood ten times and made one donation of stem cells.

The stem cell donation took place in the spring of 2020. The experience was a memorable one.

"The stem cell registry called and said that my particular cells could help someone who was seriously ill. I understood my responsibility immediately," Lehtinen recalls.

Stem cell transplants are used to treat leukemia, among other diseases. It is often a patient’s last hope when all other treatments have been exhausted.

Lehtinen underwent a procedure in Helsinki in which a litre of marrow was removed from his pelvic bone. Less than a year later, an anonymous, emotional letter dropped into Lehtinen's mailbox.

"My donation had saved the life of a little boy somewhere. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from knowing that," he says.

The letter Lehtinen received did not reveal the identity of the boy he saved, and the boy will never know about Lehtinen. The donors and recipients of stem cell donations always remain anonymous Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

Youth and gender are advantages

Lehtinen is a rarity among tissue donors. By age and gender, he belongs to a group in short supply as donors of blood, stem cells and reproductive cells.

"Young men are, by physiology, ideal donors in many respects. It is unfortunate that they as a group are not more active," says Mika Gissler, a research professor at the Finland's National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

Of Finland's more than 115,000 annual blood donors, less than 40 percent are men. The national Stem Cell Registry includes about 55,000 people, only around 30 percent men. The younger the age group, the fewer men there are.

According to Liisa Romo, of the Finnish Red Cross' blood bank service, young men could make a larger contribution to the security of supply. In part, this is because men can donate blood more often than women, and young people can potentially donate more than their older counterparts.

Women donate more blood in Finland than do men. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Young men are especially high-value donors of stem cells.

"Men are selected as donors more often than women. This is due to compatibility issues," explains Matti Korhonen, Chief Physician at the Stem Cell Registry.

"Women are also important donors, but male tissue types are suitable for a larger proportion of patients. In terms of age, a younger donor is usually better than an older one," he continues.

Sperm imports from Denmark

Last year, 217 men in Finland registered to donate semen. That is less than a third of what is needed for fertility treatments in the country as a whole.

According to THL's Gissler, the situation has led to the majority of women in need of treatment being fertilised with sperm cells imported from abroad.

THL's Mika Gissler is unable to say how more Finnish men could best be motivated to donate sperm. Image: Yle/Taisto Lapila

"A lot of [the needed] sperm cells are imported, especially from Denmark. This allows the treatments to be done. However, in terms of the child’s legal rights, sperm from domestic sources would be a better option," Gissler says.

According to the law governing fertility treatments in Finland, a child has the right to know the identity the donor of the sperm or egg cells used in his or her conception after reaching the age of 18. Gissler points out that this is easy in Finland, but sometimes difficult when the cells are sourced from abroad.

He adds that this law, which came into force in 2007, is one of the reasons why Finnish men are not too keen to donate sperm.

"Many men in their twenties are not ready for the idea that a descendant could come knocking on the door later. This is the case, even though the donor has no support, inheritance or visitation obligations," he says.

Continuing decline

Attempts have been made in recent years to increase the enthusiasm of more young men to donate blood, stem cells and sperm. The issue has been brought to the fore at various public events, trade fairs and educational institutions, including the use of celebrity influencers and even a heavy metal band.

Despite these efforts, the number of young men among donors has always been relatively small. For blood donations, it has even dropped.

"Ten years ago, the proportion of men providing blood donations was a few percentage points higher. In other words, today's young people do not have the same enthusiasm for helping others as the age group that is now retiring," says Liisa Romo of the Red Cross' blood bank service.

Meanwhile, Antti Lehtinen intends to continue to donate blood as long as he is allowed to do so. Under current age limits, that could be for the next 40 years.

According to Antti Lehtinen, there are misconceptions about donating stem cells that he wants to dispel by sharing his experiences. Image: Toni Pitkänen / Yle

"In principle, I could get another request to donate stem cells. If I can save someone's life, then of course I'd agree," Lehtinen says.