Gay and bi men will now be able to donate blood on an equal footing to heterosexuals in the UK.
The country is the latest to review its ban on donating blood as HIV transmission levels fall among men who have sex with men.
The policy will now allow blood donations from anyone who has only had one sexual partner – or, indeed, no sexual partners – in the last three months.
It replaces a policy where gay and bi men had to abstain from both oral and anal sex for three months before donating.
Announcing the policy today, the UK’s Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, said:
‘This landmark change to blood donation is safe and it will allow many more people, who have previously been excluded by donor selection criteria, to take the opportunity to help save lives.
‘This is a positive step and recognises individuals for the actions they take, rather than their sexual preference.’
Ethan Spibey, founder of FreedomToDonate – set up to fight the ban, said:
‘We have campaigned for over six years for the restrictions on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood to be updated and warmly welcome this announcement.
‘This means the UK has one of the world’s most progressive blood donation policies and more people than ever will be able to safely donate for those who need it.
‘We’ve made great progress and look forward to continuing to work with the government and others to ensure as many people who could safely donate blood can do so.’
Meanwhile Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said: ‘This announcement will put an end to the discrimination many people in the LGBT+ community have faced.’
New FAIR rules
The new rules won’t take effect until summer 2021. But they have been widely expected since at least May this year.
Today’s announcement from Hancock came after the government set up a group called FAIR (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk) early in 2019 to review the ban.
It includes representatives from the four UK blood services, LGBT+ groups, medical and scientific experts, and patient and donor representatives.
Eamonn Ferguson, Professor of Health Psychology at University of Nottingham, explained how FAIR ‘triangulated epidemiological and behavioural science’ to work out how to screen blood donors for sexual behavior.
As a result, the ban will forbid donation from anyone who has used a chemsex drug to enhance sex in the previous six months.
Likewise, people taking PrEP pills to avoid contracting HIV won’t be able to donate. And those who have received treatment for syphilis in the last 12 months will also not donate.
But the blood donor screening system will no longer ask people if their partners were male or female. That makes ‘blood donation gender neutral and more inclusive,’ the government says.
Minister for Blood Donation, Lord Bethell said: ‘By closely examining the latest evidence relating to blood donation and sexual behaviour, we have been able to bring forward more inclusive policy to allow people to safely donate blood to save lives.
‘I am grateful to the members of the FAIR steering group, including LGBT charities, for the work they have done over the last 18 months to enable us to bring this policy, which many have called for, to fruition.’
‘Changes will keep blood just as safe’
Meanwhile Su Brailsford, Associate Medical Director at NHS Blood and Transplant and chair of FAIR said further changes may come:
‘Patients rely on the generosity of donors for their lifesaving blood and so we welcome the decision to accept the FAIR recommendations in full.
‘We are proud to have the safest blood supply in the world and I’m pleased to have concluded that these new changes to donor selection will keep blood just as safe.
‘This is just the beginning. We will keep collaborating with LGBT representatives, patients and donors so when we make these changes our process for getting accurate donor information about sexual behaviours is inclusive and done well.
‘FAIR has also made a recommendation to government that further evidence-based reviews are needed for other deferrals such as how we determine risk based on travel.’
Meanwhile HIV organizations are also backing the change.
Deborah Gold, chief executive at National AIDS Trust, said: ‘We welcome this step towards a fairer system of individualised, evidence-based assessment of risk for people who choose to donate blood.
‘It’s important that the government now builds on this to address the remaining inequalities in blood donation policies, such as restrictions for people who have ever injected drugs.
‘In doing so it should prioritise protecting the safety of the blood supply while maximising the potential for people to give blood.’
But she added the government needed to do more to fight HIV – by following recommendations from the independent HIV Commission which the UK accepted this month.
Gold said: ‘We now need to see action on the endemic health inequalities that lead to the disproportionate impact of HIV on some groups including gay and bisexual men and people from black African communities.
‘This includes the government meeting its commitment to end new HIV transmissions by 2030 and implementing the findings of the HIV Commission, which set out how this can be achieved.’
How the policy compares
Countries around the world introduced the bans on gay and bi men at the height of another pandemic – the AIDS crisis.
In the UK, gay and bi men were originally banned for life from giving blood. This was then reduced to a one-year ‘no sex’ deferral period in 2011 and then reduced again to a three-month sex-free wait in 2017.
Since then, new HIV infections in many countries have fallen among gay and bi men.
People taking PrEP and having regular testing as well as HIV positive people on effective treatment have all slashed infection rates. While they may not be able to donate blood they are contributing by reducing the amount of HIV in the population, making it safer for others to do so.
The new policy will finally make the UK’s approach one of the best in the world.
At the moment countries including Spain, South Africa, Italy, Russia and Mexico allow gay and bi men to donate blood without a waiting period. Hungary joined this group earlier this month.
By contrast, countries including Austria, Malaysia and Greece still impose a lifetime ban on gay and bi men’s blood.
And some otherwise fairly LGBT+ friendly countries still have a one-year wait period after sex for gay and bi men. They include Belgium, Ireland and Malta.
Meanwhile some other countries – like Canada – ask for a three month wait after sex. Both the USA and Australia have joined this group this year.
Australian campaigners have already used the UK’s change in policy to call for a further relaxation and campaigners in the US are likely to do the same.