The Government announced today that the rules on gay men* donating blood will change from a lifetime ban to a 12 month deferral period. This decision follows a review of the current policies around exclusion and deferral from blood donation by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).
NAT (National AIDS Trust) called for a proactive, comprehensive and evidence-based review of the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood – in light of improved testing and screening technologies, and anti-discrimination obligations. This review was strongly supported by other HIV and LGBT organisations, including Terrence Higgins Trust who had been working with NHS Blood and Transplant, and GMFA, who joined NAT and THT on the advisory group for the review.
Carl Burnell, Chief Executive of GMFA the gay men’s health charity, comments:
‘The removal of the ban to a one year deferral is great news but it’s going to leave some gay men frustrated that they still can’t donate blood. However the one year deferral is based on scientific evidence to ensure the safety of the blood supply in relation to hepatitis B and HIV. Gay men can play their part in ensuring the UK has a safe supply of blood for everyone, including gay men, by adhering to the one year deferral.
It will be news to most that hepatitis B, rather than HIV has kept the deferral period to one year. Hepatitis B is completely preventable if you get vaccinated against it, and I’d urge all gay men to do so. If all gay men get vaccinated against Hepatitis B, and prevalence of hepatitis B falls in our community as a result, it would be appropriate to re-examine the evidence and reduce the deferral period even further.’
Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), comments:
‘The lifetime ban on gay men donating blood has been at the centre of much controversy and debate in recent years, particularly as it became clear that this rule and current science were completely out of sync. NAT was instrumental in securing a proactive, time-based review of the present lifetime bans on blood donation and we are delighted to see the review’s recommendations for change being implemented. This decision is now based on evidence and the safety of the blood supply will be maintained. However, we are adamant that this decision will need to be reviewed again in the future as science and the HIV epidemic evolves, and new evidence emerges. We must ensure that changes in these areas are proactively monitored so that we avoid having out-dated rules in place that do not benefit the public and instead simply discriminate against certain groups.’
Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), comments:
‘We welcome this decision, which is based on strong new evidence that all the experts are agreed on. These regulations will ensure the safety of the blood supply for all of us while also being fair and equal in their application. We can now detect blood-borne viruses earlier and have more understanding of them, and the change reflects that.
‘The remaining deferral regulation for sexually active gay men is based on their heightened risk, as a group, of sexually acquired blood-borne viruses. Changing that depends on reducing gay men’s risk of HIV and other STIs to the same level as the rest of the population, and re-emphasising the vital importance of safer sex as far too many gay men still become infected with HIV each year. We will continue to campaign to improve gay men’s sexual health to a level where the regulations can be the same for all, regardless of sexuality.’
Currently, men who have ever had oral or anal sex with another man (with or without a condom) are permanently excluded from blood donation in theUK. The change means that in future only men who have had anal or oral sex with another man in the past 12 months (with or without a condom) will be asked not to donate blood. Men whose last relevant sexual contact with another man was more than 12 months ago will be able to donate (subject to meeting the other donor selection criteria).
The safety of the blood supply has been at the heart of SaBTO’s review, and the conclusion that safety levels will be maintained following the rule change is supported by the most up-to-date scientific evidence. Blood donor selection criteria and other safety measures such as stringent testing mean theUKblood supply is among the safest in the world. There has been no documented transmission of a blood-borne virus through blood transfusions in theUKsince 2005, with no HIV transmission since 2002.
The lifting of the permanent ban on gay men donating blood and replacement with a 12 month deferral period not only aligns the new rule with current science and evidence, it also takes into account equality laws which do not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation. Any difference in treatment of gay men must be a balanced response based on evidence and appropriate assessment of risk.
The 12 month deferral period takes into account the elevated levels of blood-borne viruses amongst gay men and the ‘window periods’ where viruses go undetected during screening. HIV can be detected four weeks after infection but hepatitis B takes significantly longer, and then has a second window period in the later stages of infection (up to 12 months) which is why there must be a deferral period of one year for those most at risk of transmitting the viruses.
Whilst we are pleased to welcome this rule change for gay men, we will continue to encourage SaBTO to regularly review their restrictions on blood donation related to sexual behaviour (including other groups in addition to gay men). Particularly as the epidemics around blood-borne viruses evolve and scientific evidence changes and advances.