Health Ministers announced today that the rules regarding the eligibility of gay and bisexual men to donate blood have changed. The new policy allows gay and bisexual men to donate blood if they have not had oral or anal sex with a man in the last year. Previously all men who had ever had sex with another man (including men who are gay, bisexual or had a one off sexual encounter with another man) could not donate blood.
The ban on gay men donating blood was originally introduced as a response to the HIV epidemic. Prevalence of HIV is high amongst gay men, compared to other population groups, and this fact, alongside concerns about the length of time before HIV would show up in tests, lead to a blanket ban on any man, who had ever had anal or oral sex with another man, from donating blood. Since that time, changes in testing technologies, as well as changes in equalities legislation, had lead to calls from many gay individuals and organisations, to repeal the ban.
GMFA, the gay men’s health charity, was involved in a review of the policy, conducted by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO). Although testing technologies for screening blood for HIV had improved considerably since the initial ban, concerns were raised about the possibility of Hepatitis B being in blood at a level too low to be detected but high enough to result in infection.
GMFA’s Chief Executive, Carl Burnell, said, “It is important that we fight any form of unjust discrimination against gay men. At the same time it is of paramount importance that the UK’s blood supply remains safe. The blanket ban on any gay man giving blood was no longer justified, considering the improvements in testing technologies for HIV. However the risk of Hepatitis B being passed on through blood supplies supports a deferral for gay men.”
HIV and Hepatitis B are not confined to gay men. However, evidence and epidemiology reports that were studied by SaBTO showed that the chances of someone outside of this risk group contracting these viruses and donating blood within the ‘window period’ was so small that a deferral period was not necessary.
“I think it’s important that the new policy remains open for review, as doubtless there will be changes in the epidemiology of blood borne infections, and in the ways that they can be detected,” added Carl. “There is an effective vaccine against Hepatitis B infection. If more gay men got vaccinated – and I would recommend that all gay men do – the levels of this virus in our community would drop, and that could be enough to trigger another review.”
More details about the new blood donor policy, and how it relates to gay men, can be found at www.gmfa.org.uk/blood.