THT defends its support for ban on gay blood donations

Tony Grew June 2, 2008
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The head of policy at Terrence Higgins Trust has defended the charity’s support for the National Blood Service’s policy of refusing donations from gay men.

Lisa Power explained that THT has seen the evidence put forward by the NBS and is convinced of its efficacy, but that there needs to be a concerted effort to explain to the gay community why it is necessary.

Students, LGBT rights activists and politicians have all decried the ban on men who have had sex with men from donating.

Currently, a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man, even with a condom, is barred from donating blood for life because they are deemed to be more at risk of passing on sexually transmitted diseases.

Campaign group has branded current guidelines “outdated and discriminatory” and called for an overhaul of the policy.

The only other people who are permanently banned from donating blood are individuals who have ever received money or drugs for sex and individuals who have ever injected, or been injected, with drugs.

“We support the current attitude of the NBS but we do think they could go a lot further to explain themselves,” Lisa Power, THT’s head of policy, told during a wide-ranging interview.

“I didn’t understand it (the ban) until I sat down at length with the people from the NBS and really went into it very carefully.

“Now I understand it.

“We have spent a long time trying to get the NBS to explain themselves better.

“I don’t blame people who don’t understand the ban and who think it is all about prejudice.

“99 times out of 100 when someone is told they cant do something because they are gay, it’s prejudice.

“We support the blood service so long as they regularly review the evidence.

“They have not done nearly enough with the gay community, they have been hopeless in the past.”

THT is a leading HIV and sexual health charity, providing services across England, Wales and Scotland.

It campaigns and lobbies for greater political and public understanding of the personal, social and medical impact of HIV and sexual ill health.

Ms Power, who has been gay activist for more than 30 years, told that while many in the gay community do not like the ban or understand why THT support it, it is the right approach.

“What the blood service does is something they have been afraid to admit in the past – they play the odds.

“They look at how much blood they need and they look at how many risks they have to take to get the blood, and they do not take any more risks than that.

“And although the risk is relatively low, there is a risk there.

“When we talk to people about this, they are surprised to find out that nobody from England can give blood in America.

“The odds that they play in America mean they do not need to take English blood and there is a tiny, and not dissimilar risk, of BSE from English blood.

“It wouldn’t matter if you were a vegetarian, they will not take the risk.

“For a vegetarian to be refused the chance to give blood in America is pretty much the same as a gay man would feel.”

A special section of the THT website explains their position on the ban in more detail.

A spokesperson for the NBS told

“Screening heterosexual’s blood and not the blood of homosexual men is neither a question of cost, nor of sexuality, it is a question of safety.

“The National Blood Service screens every donation.

“Of those who had made previous donations before testing positive for HIV, between October 1995 and June 2006, 48 out of 116 individuals were men who in a subsequent interview admitted they had had male to male sex.”

48 out of 116 individuals “admitting” to gay sex represents 41% or two in five cases.

The spokesperson continued:

“Current screening tests for blood still fail to pick up a very small number of infected donations, for example from people with very early HIV infection who will still test negative for the markers of infection.

“So for the sake of blood safety, donors from high risk groups are asked not to donate.”

The latest Health Protection Agency findings released by National AIDS Trust show diagnoses of heterosexuals infected in the UK have increased by 50 per cent since 2003.

Figures for the Health Protection Surveillance Centre 2007 also reveal that of the newly diagnosed cases of HIV in 2007, 53% were acquired through heterosexual contact while only 21% were through male-to-male sexual contact.

Yusef Azad, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the NAT said:

“It is absolutely paramount that the blood supply is protected and it remains the case that gay men are the largest group affected by HIV in the UK.

“However, we do believe that the current rules should now be reviewed in the light of changes in practices in other countries, and alternatives such as a time limited ban be actively considered. “

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