We believe that blood donation rules should be based on up–to-date evidence.
We have campaigned about three groups whom we believe are unfairly discriminated against by blood donation rules in the UK:
- gay and bisexual men
- sex workers
- people who inject drugs.
All of these groups are subject to either a deferral period or a lifetime ban. A deferral period is a delay between a specific activity (for example having sex) and when a person is allowed to donate blood.
Blood donation policy in Britain is guided by the work of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).
The safety of the blood supply is of paramount importance in order to provide reassurance for those receiving blood.
However, we also believe that blood donation rules should allow as many people as want to donate to do so.
Following pressure from Terrence Higgins Trust and other HIV organisations, SaBTO established a Donor Selection Working Group in 2016, in which we took part.
The working group proposed the following changes to donation rules:
- Gay and bisexual men would be subject to a three-month deferral period for both anal and oral sex activities – a reduction from 12 months.
- Current and former sex workers would be subject to a three-month deferral period – a reduction from a lifetime ban.
- People who used to inject drugs would be subject to a 12-month deferral period – a reduction from a lifetime ban.
At the end of November 2017, the recommendations by the Donor Selection Working Group were implemented across England, Wales and Scotland.
Why the changes happened
Gay and bisexual men
The previous 12-month deferral period did not reflect changes to HIV testing technologies, which mean that HIV can be detected in the blood from three months after exposure. Some tests can detect infection even earlier.
There was no definitive evidence to support the previous lifetime ban. Our research with sex workers indicated that many individuals believed the donation rules to be inequitable, unscientific and stigmatising.
Former drug users
The previous lifetime ban prevented people donating blood even if they had not injected drugs for over a year, or even many years. A 12-month deferral would be long enough to reduce the risk of bacterial infection.
We are calling on the governments in England, Wales and Scotland to ensure that everyone affected by the changes is made aware of them. This will maximise the number of newly eligible people who come forward to donate blood.
Despite pressure from Terrence Higgins Trust, the working group review didn’t conduct research into the risk for gay and bisexual men who only have oral sex. Research shows that the risk of contracting HIV from oral sex is extremely low and evidence may therefore point towards a shorter or non-existent deferral period for them.
There must also be a commitment from SaBTO that it will conduct regular reviews into blood donation eligibility criteria, so that its policies:
- are based on the latest science
- keep pace with advances in technologies for testing of blood-borne viruses, including increases in test sensitivities and window periods
- do not unnecessarily exclude people.
This would require the government to invest in robust scientific research that will hopefully pave the way for more people to donate blood.
Background on the blood donation ban
Following the AIDS epidemic across Britain, a lifetime ban on donating blood was placed on all gay and bisexual men. Gay and bisexual men accounted for the highest numbers of new HIV infections and this policy was introduced to protect the blood supply from the virus.
A change in policy was introduced in 2011 meaning gay and bisexual men in England, Scotland and Wales could donate blood after a 12-month deferral period. All blood products are now thoroughly screened for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
We have campaigned for many years for a change to blood donation policy and have argued for a system that does not unnecessarily discriminate groups from donating. In 2017 we published our insight briefing [PDF] on sex workers' perceptions of the blood donation rules.
If you have any further questions about our campaign, contact Alex Phillips, our Campaigns and Parliamentary Officer, on [email protected].