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WHY GAY MEN CAN NOT DONATE BLOOD




The NHS needs nearly 400 new blood donors a day to meet demand. Yet a blanket rule for men who have sex with men means they cannot donate blood without abstaining from sex.

Blood donation is crucial to keep the health service running. To maintain a safe blood supply and protect donors, there are restrictions on who can donate blood and when. For example, you can't give blood if you are unwell or have had a new piercing in the preceding four months.

One of the most controversial restrictions is that men who have sex with men (MSM) cannot donate blood unless they have abstained from all sex for at least three months.


BLANKET BAN

A lifetime blanket ban on blood donation for any man who had ever had sex with a man was introduced following a rise in HIV and hepatitis B cases in the 1970s and 1980s.


 Once it was realised that these conditions could be passed on through blood, it was crucial that those who were most at risk of contracting the viruses, including gay and bisexual men, were not able to pass them on through blood donation since effective screening was not yet available.

In 2011, the ban was lifted and replaced by a twelve-month deferral period in which MSM had to abstain from sex to be allowed to donate blood.

The rules were again updated at the end of 2017 following years of campaigning by sexual health and LGBTQ+ organisations. However, the new three-month deferral period still prevents many MSM from donating blood if they are having regular sex.

"Anyone can acquire a blood-borne virus or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but some people have an increased risk of exposure.


 At a population level, men who have sex with men have a higher risk of acquiring blood-borne infections," says a spokesperson for NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT).

"We have a three-month deferral because there is a small possibility the tests we carry out are not able to pick up recently acquired infections. If someone was to donate blood during this time, known as a window period, it would be possible to transmit an infection," they explain.

Organisations who campaigned for the deferral period to be reduced argued that modern screening techniques made a lengthy period of abstinence unnecessary.

"You have to weigh up the balance between making sure that any risk to the blood supply is properly mitigated and making sure that people aren't being unfairly prevented from giving blood should they wish to," says Kat Smithson, director of policy at National AIDS Trust (NAT) which advocated for the change.

"We felt that most infections would be picked up after a three-month period and therefore there was no reason to have this additional nine months whereby someone couldn't give blood.


 It wouldn't make any difference to the blood supply. It meant that the rules were much fairer and more in line with the Equality Act."

With most HIV tests that you can take at a sexual health clinic, you can have a fairly accurate result after four weeks and a definitive result after six weeks. Other blood-borne infections have different window periods.

MSM aren't the only group affected by bans or deferrals for blood donation, explains Smithson. "Although they are one of the most significant groups affected by this, there are also other people who are affected by the rules and who may wish to give blood.


 For example, people who have previously worked as sex workers or people who have previously injected drugs."

In the past, sex workers were banned for life from donating blood - as with MSM, they can now donate from three months after the last time they had sex. The same applies to people who have sex with partners in groups known to have a high risk of STIs.

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