Although the new policy is a big improvement on the existing discriminatory rules, a 12-month ban is still excessive and unjustified. Most gay and bisexual men do not have HIV and will never have HIV. 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.
I have been campaigning for 20 years for an evidence-based policy which protects the blood supply while not needlessly discriminating against men who’ve had sex with men.
The 12 month ban will apply even if gay and bisexual men always use a condom and even if they test HIV-negative.
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.
The blood service could have opted for a much shorter exclusion period. It should focus on excluding donors who have engaged in risky sexual behaviour 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.
Reducing the exclusion period for blood donations from gay and bisexual men should go hand-in-hand with a ‘Safe Blood’ education campaign targeted at the gay community, to ensure that no one donates blood if they are at risk of HIV and other blood-borne infections due to unsafe sexual behaviour.
We also need a major drive to vaccinate gay and bisexual men against Hepatitis A and B, to prevent these infections getting into the blood supply.
In addition, the questionnaire that would-be blood donors have to answer should be made more detailed for men who’ve had sex with men, in order to more accurately identify the degree of risk, if any, that their blood may pose. A few additional questions would improve donor awareness of risk factors and more accurately exclude those whose blood may not be safe.
There is a strong case for only excluding men who’ve had risky sex without a condom.
Sadly, the blood service’s new policy makes no distinction between sex with a condom and sex without one. 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. 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.
With these provisos and safeguards, a shorter exclusion period would be reasonable and not endanger the blood supply. The blood donated would be safe.
Peter Tatchell is the director of the human rights advocacy organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation.