Ban on gay men donating blood is lifted, but what’s really changed?

Today new regulations came into force that end the lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men who have ever had sex with another man.

Instead gay men must abstain from sex for 12 months before being able to give their blood, which I’m not quite sure makes it any easier to donate.

A year’s abstinence is quite a lot to ask. Is this really an end to the ban or simply a rebranding?

The previous rules put in place in the 1980s were a reaction to the AIDS/HIV panic when gay men were the group most at risk. But 30 years on it has only just been decided necessary to end this blanket ban.

Although gay men are the group most at risk of AIDS, other groups are obviously not immune and this needs to be recognised in the system. Since 2003 more newly diagnosed people have been infected through heterosexual sex than gay sex.

A statement issued by NHS Blood and Transplant service said: “The change brings the criterion for men who have had sex with men in line with those for the majority of other groups that are deferred from blood donation for 12 months due to the risks of infection associated with sexual behaviors.

“We appreciate that it can be disappointing for anyone who wishes to donate blood but is not able to meet the donor selection criteria. The criteria are based on complex assessments of risk and must by their nature be based on evidence and statistics that are recorded at a population level.”

A look on the NHS Blood and Transplant service website shows me that the other reasons for waiting a year before donating include having sex with a prostitute, injecting yourself with drugs, being a woman who sleeps with a man who has had sex with a man or having sex with someone who has been sexually active in a country where AIDS/HIV is prevalent.

This is all regardless of whether a condom is used or the sex is oral, anal or vaginal.

Under these conditions gay men in long term, monogamous relationships whose blood is screened clear are rejected from being blood donors. People who take necessary precautions and are personally at low risk of contracting a sexually transmitted virus are being stopped from donating.

I understand that there are constraints in place – funding being one – but can’t a system be implemented which calculates the risk of the individual and gives the blood itself more rigorous testing? After all, the current system only relies on the honesty of the individual when answering a pre-donation questionnaire.

There hasn’t been a case of HIV transferred through blood donation in this country since 2002 and obviously I wouldn’t want anything to compromise this. But are these changes to the system really a change?



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