UK Gay Blood Ban Lifted

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Nov 7, 2011

The lifelong ban on gay men donating blood has been officially lifted in Great Britain, numerous news sites reported. In its place is a requirement that men who have sex with men wait for one year after a same-sex encounter to donate blood.

For critics, the one-year wait period with no same-gender sex is as bad as the outright ban. But for others, the end of the ban is a step forward.

"We welcome this change, which is based on strong new evidence that all the experts are agreed on," said Nick Partridge, the head of the Terrence Higgins Trust, an AIDS charity. "These regulations will ensure the safety of blood supply for all of us while also being fair and equal in their application."

"The move comes after a review by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs," reported UK gay news site on Nov. 7. "It will be implemented across England, Scotland and Wales."

"Our priority as a blood service is to provide a safe and sufficient supply of blood for patients," said Lorna Williamson of the National Health Service. "This change gives us an opportunity to broaden our donor acceptance on the basis of the latest scientific evidence."

Williamson's comments were part of a Press Association story posted at the Huffington Post on Nov. 7.

"The Sabto review concluded that the safety of the blood supply would not be affected by the change and we would like to reassure patients receiving transfusions that the blood supply is as safe as it reasonably can be and amongst the safest in the world," continued Williamson, referring to a study conducted by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs.

"There has been no documented transmission of a blood-borne virus in the UK since 2005, with no HIV transmission since 2002."

The ban was put in place in the 1980s, when relatively little was known about the virus and testing methods were much less sensitive than they are now.

The guidelines for allowing gay men to donate blood are still much stricter than for most heterosexuals.

"Men who have had anal or oral sex with another man in the past 12 months, with or without a condom, will still not be eligible to donate blood," noted the Press Association article.

As EDGE reported in September, critics of the guidelines expressed the opinion that the restrictions that remain in place are still prejudicial and excessive.

Whereas straight men who have sex with prostitutes or use intravenous drugs are also banned for one year from donating blood, gay men who practice safe sex or who are in long-term monogamous relationships are not given the same benefit of the doubt as heterosexual men who conduct themselves in similar fashion.

"A gay man in a monogamous relationship who has only had oral sex will still automatically be unable to give blood but a heterosexual man who has had multiple partners and not worn a condom will not be questioned about his behavior, or even then, excluded," said Ben Summerskill of the British GLBT rights group Stonewall, a Sept. 8 BBC article reported.

In other words, a married straight man who has sex with a prostitute (or in what is deemed a "high risk country") must wait a year -- but a monogamous gay man in a civil partnership cannot donate blood unless he and his husband refrain from sex for a full year.

"Most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV," noted GLBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. "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 donors."

In a Sept. 8 release, Tatchell blasted the revised policy once again.

"Sadly, the blood service's new policy makes no distinction between sex with a condom and sex without one," Tatchell noted. "Any oral or anal sex between men in the previous 12 months -- even with protection -- will be grounds for continuing to refuse a donor under the new rules.

"This is unjustified," Tatchell added. "If a condom is used correctly, it is absolute protection against the transmission and contraction of HIV. Men who use condoms every time without breakages -- and who test HIV negative -- should not be barred from donating blood."

Tatchell also expressed displeasure at the length of the waiting period.

"Protecting the blood supply is the number one priority but ensuring blood safety does not require such a lengthy time span during which gay and bisexual men are barred from donating blood," he asserted.

"The blood service could have opted for a much shorter exclusion period. It should focus on excluding donors who have engaged in risky sexual behavior and those whose HIV status cannot be accurately determined because of the delay between the date of infection and the date when the HIV virus and HIV antibodies manifest and become detectable in an infected person's blood."

Others suggested the original lifetime ban on gay blood donors ban should have been left in place. The Hemophilia Society's Chris James, worried that even though modern testing techniques are sensitive enough to detect minute amounts of HIV in blood, changing the requirements about who may give blood would leave the bloody supply vulnerable to new kinds of pathogens that might emerge in times to come, Manchester radio station KEY-103 reported.

It was unclear why any as-yet unknown blood borne viruses might confine themselves to gay donors.


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