UK health authorities this week revealed that, as of November 7, the lifetime ban on sexually active gay men donating blood will be retired and replaced with a deferral period limiting the ban to gay men who have had sex with another man in the past year. This applies to England, Wales and Scotland, with Northern Ireland expected to make a decision on their ban in the coming months.
The lifetime ban was introduced in the UK in the 1980s in response to the AIDS crisis.
Recently, however, the ban has been a target for equality and health campaigners who say the ban is discriminatory and is not justifiable given the latest risk calculations and new screening methods. This led the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissue and Organs to review the ban, and the Committee has now concluded that the lifetime ban can be retired.
Committee member Prof Deirdre Kelly said the safety of the blood supply is “absolutely essential” and that any restrictions “must be based on the latest scientific evidence”.
She said there had been advances in the testing of donated blood which had significantly reduced the chance of errors and had reduced the size of the “window period”.
She said the data showed that “the risk from a 12-month deferral was equivalent to permanent deferral” so “the evidence does not support the maintenance of a permanent ban”.
Among other countries to retire their lifetime ban, Australia last year reduced the deferral period to one year. A year on, research says there has been no significant increase in HIV infections as a result of this change.
The year deferral, health authorities argue, is still necessary however because there is a period of about twelve months in which new HIV and hepatitis B infections can be hard to detect.
While campaigners have praised the UK’s action to end the lifetime ban, they have also pointed out it remains discriminatory to blanket ban gay men — even those in committed and monogamous relationships — while heterosexuals are not given the same restrictions.
“We recognise this move as a step in the right direction,” [said Ben Summerskill of gay rights group Stonewall]. “However, Stonewall will continue to push for a donation system based on the real risks. People wanting to donate blood should be asked similar questions irrespective of their sexual orientation.”
Andy Wasley, editor in chief of So So Gay magazine, called for hepatitis B to be included in the national vaccination programme, as in most countries in Europe, and for “more precise selection criteria” to be used in identifying high-risk potential donors.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) recently said that it would re-examine the US’s blanket blood donation ban on men who have sex with other men (MSM). Any man that has had sex with another man since 1977, no matter how infrequently or safely, is permanently barred from donating under the current policy.
Canadian Blood Services and its counterpart Héma Québec are also said to be reconsidering their bans.