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U.K. to allow sexually active gay and bisexual men to donate blood

The blood shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic had reignited calls for a policy change.
Image: A technician scans bar codes on bags of donated blood, United Kingdom.
A technician scans bar codes on bags of donated blood, United Kingdom.Universal Images Group via Getty file

In a landmark change to existing policy, the United Kingdom will allow sexually active gay and bisexual men to donate blood, with the new criteria focusing on individual behaviors and lifting the outright ban on blood from men who have sex with men.

“This is such a fundamental change and victory,” Ethan Spibey, a blood donation advocate, said. “It’s a groundbreaking, pioneering new policy for gay and bi men in the U.K.”

Under the new guidelines, donors who have had only one sexual partner for more than three months will be eligible to give blood. A health check questionnaire completed prior to donating will be used to assess eligibility and safety. The criteria will apply to all people interested in giving blood, regardless of their gender, their partner’s gender or the sexual activity in which they engage.

The new criteria was born out of a report by the “For Assessment of Individualised Risk” (FAIR) steering committee, a collaboration of British blood services and LGBTQ nonprofits. After two years of research, the group proposed a move to identify a wider range of risk behaviors that apply to all donors, according to the U.K.’s Department of Health and Social Care.

Sexually active gay and bisexual men who fall under the new guidelines will be able to donate blood in England by summer 2021. The rollout plans for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not yet known.

“Patients rely on the generosity of donors for their lifesaving blood and so we welcome the decision to accept the FAIR recommendations in full,” Su Brailsford, associate medical director at the U.K.’s National Health Service Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), the governmental body that will implement the new guidance, said in a statement.

The existing British policy requires men who have sex with men to abstain from oral and anal sex with another man for three months prior to donating. This is similar to the current policy in the United States, which earlier this year had changed the donation deferral period from 12 months of abstinence to three and had once been a lifetime ban on any man who ever had sex with another man since 1977. The policies date back to the 1980s during the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. However, the blood shortage caused by the coronavirus pandemic has reignited calls for a change to these policies. The ban prevented sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating plasma to a coronavirus research trial in the U.K. over the summer.

“The U.K. is seen as leading in this policy area,” Spibey said. “We genuinely believe this will impact thousands here and millions around the world.”

Spibey is the founder of FreedomToDonate, a coalition of nonprofits working to change policy so men who have sex with men are more easily able to donate blood. His team sits on the FAIR working group to push forward this policy. He said his organization regularly speaks with teams in the U.S. working to adjust blood donation policies there to an individualized risk assessment format.

The new guidelines will still ban individuals who have a known exposure to a sexually transmitted infection and those who use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the HIV prevention medication. Spibey said his organization got the U.K. government to agree to reconsider the guidelines regarding PrEP as soon as more U.K.-based research on the medication is published.

“Gay and bi men have that recognition to make that small but lifesaving gesture,” Spibey said of the new donation rules. “That recognition and that inclusion is hugely significant.”

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