Britain has overturned its total ban on blood donations from gay men, now saying it will allow donations from those who have not had sex in the last 12 months.
The issue of blood donation from ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM) has been fraught since most countries implemented a blanket ban after the rise of AIDS. America is mulling ending its ban on blood donations from gay males, while other countries have implemented their own policies for taking donations after a certain length of time since the donor’s last sexual encounter.
Now a review of the science by the UK’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs has concluded that the risk of an infection being transmitted via donated blood will not be increased by allowing MSM who have not engaged in oral or anal sex in the last 12 months to donate. This period of time is necessary due to the risk of Hepatitis B, which can be infectious for a long period even when at undetectable levels.
“The evidence does not support a permanent ban,” said Deirdre Kelly, a hepatologist and member of the advisory committee.
This decision has been accepted by the health ministers of England, Scotland and Wales where gay men who meet the criteria will be able to give blood starting 7 November. Northern Ireland’s minister Edwin Poots is taking more time to consider his decision, says Kelly. She says there is no evidence that would justify Northern Ireland implementing a different policy from other parts of the United Kingdom.
“There has been a growing sense that the lifetime ban was no longer right,” says Nick Partridge, chief executive of AIDS charity the Terrence Higgins Trust. “It had begun to seem unfair and unreasonable. I welcome the new rule.”
He admitted that the new rule would still mean most gay men could not donate blood.
The ruling came as a new study published in the BMJ showed that 10.6% of MSM had donated blood in Britain, 2.5% of them in the previous 12 months. Reasons given for donating in violation of the lifetime ban included self-categorisation as low-risk and the perceived unfairness of the total ban. A one year deferral period “is likely to be welcomed” by MSM, the authors concluded.
However the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already called the 12 month period “excessive and unjustified”.
“Most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV. If they always have safe sex with a condom, have only one partner and test HIV negative, their blood is safe to donate. They can and should be allowed to help save lives by becoming donor,” said Tatchell in a statement.
Image: detail from blood.co.uk website