April 10, 2011
By Adam Bink
Via Towleroad, the United Kingdom is set to lift the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men, with an important caveat:
However, gay men will only be permitted to donate if they have not had sexual intercourse for a decade. Homosexuals who are or have recently been sexually active will continue to be barred from giving blood.
Anne Milton, the public health minister, is expected to announce the changes within weeks and she is understood to be backed by Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, and Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister.
The changes were instigated by Sabto, the advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs, which had concluded that if the ban were replaced by a new rule preventing gay men from giving blood for five years after having sex with another man, the risk of HIV reaching the blood supply would go up by less than 5%.
It is estimated that this figure would halve if the “deferral” period were increased to 10 years, so ministers backed this option. The 10-year delay also ensures that people who are not aware they have contracted HIV do not pass it on accidentally.
Last year, I worked with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and colleagues in the blogosphere on revising the unfair and discriminatory ban here in the United States. Ultimately, because HIV refuses to show itself in newly infected individual for a window period, any potential donor — heterosexual or homosexual — risks the blood supply. It comes down to a question of how much risk. What is the most important thing is that the rules apply fairly to everyone. For example, here in the US, if a heterosexual man has sex with an HIV-positive woman, he is banned from giving blood for a year afterwards (which by itself makes little sense because of window period). But if I have sex with my boyfriend, even once, I’m banned for life. The other thing is to change to a risk-based deferral based on behavior, not arbitrary time periods like 10 years or one year. If you engage in frequent unprotected sex with multiple partners, your risk is much different than that of an HIV-negative, longtime monogamous couple, which makes this 10-year period so arbitrary. Ultimately, perhaps a small step forward.
Currently, HHS is studying a potential change in the policy as a result of last summer’s committee vote that found the current policy is ”suboptimal in permitting some high risk donations [from populations other than MSM] while preventing some low risk donations [from the MSM population].” The ultimate decision is up to the FDA. A change in the policy is also supported by the Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and AABB. For more, some work on this I did with colleagues can be found here.