Gay men could be subject to five-year ban on blood donation

Jessica Geen October 28, 2009
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A public meeting yesterday discussed the possibility of a five-year deferral for gay and bisexual men donating blood, rather than a lifetime ban.

The meeting, held by the independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs, was part of a new review on the long list of people excluded for life due to the danger of blood-borne diseases between transmitted.

Currently, this includes men who have ever had sex with another man, people who have injected drugs, prostitutes and those who have ever had syphilis, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Temporary exclusions include those who have visited certain parts of the world, or have had sex with someone from certain parts of the world.

Yesterday’s meeting heard that gay men who have not had sex with another man in the last five years could become eligible to donate blood.

Other suggestions included banning only those who have had anal sex, rather than oral sex, and lifting the ban on women who have had sex with a gay or bisexual man.

The meeting began with testimonies from experts.

Dr Richard Tedder, a microbiologist from University College London, argued that viruses were “not politically correct” and pointed to windows of time before HIV could be detected in blood samples. He also cited issues with testing blood donations for HIV, saying that not all of the blood in one donation can be tested.

Professor Deirdre Kelly, a liver specialist from Birmingham Children’s Hospital, spoke of the need for people to donate blood and said she was not satisfied that certain deferral and exclusion policies were consistent with estimated risk.

The audience also heard from a heart transplant patient who argued that lifting the lifetime ban on gay men would “de-demonise HIV and AIDS” and would create a larger pool of blood donors.

The floor was then opened up for discussion.

Yusef Azad, from the National AIDS Trust, said he believed population-based deterrents were justified but added: “If you look at five-year deferrals [for gay men] with fourth-generation HIV testing, there is no significant risk.”

Nick Partridge, the chief executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said research has found that the vast majority – 93 per cent – of gay men have complied with the current ban on donating blood.

But he added: “I’m struggling to calculate how many gay men haven’t had sex in five, ten years. What realistic difference would it make?”

Dr Tedder said he did not think gay men who hadn’t had sex for five years would make a significant difference to safety.

Professor Kelly raised the issue of heterosexual men who may have once had a gay experience and said it was problematic that they, and their wives and girlfriends, were barred from donating blood.

Deborah Jack, of NAT, asked whether men who have only had oral sex with another man posed a significant risk.

A group of around 40 students, along with Peter Tatchell, had been protesting against the ban outside the conference venue in Greycoat Street. Several attended the meeting along with National Union of Students LGBT officer Daf Adley.

Adley suggested that the blood service was missing out on donations from thousands of healthy men and also argued that including protected oral sex as a reason for banning some gay men sent out the wrong message, as young gay men were being informed that protected oral sex was safe.

He called for gay men to be screened for blood donation according to their individual behaviour, rather than basing specifications on whole groups.

However, a number of experts present refuted this, saying the lengthy questioning procedure this would involve was simply not practical.

Matthew Beaver, a local councillor, introduced himself to the audience as a gay man and suggested that those in the closet posed a far greater risk to public safety than men who were openly and confidently gay. This was dismissed by Nick Partridge, who said he doubted this was happening.

Stonewall previously supported the lifetime ban on gay men but recently changed its position. Terrence Higgins Trust maintains the lifetime ban is necessary.

Spokesman Derek Munn said: “It is difficult for us to have different views from Terrence Higgins Trust but we reached our current position from the input of our members.

“To have men who have sex with men as a single undefinable category is like using a blunt instrument.”

The last review, in January 2007, recommended that the policy of banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood should be continued.

A study commissioned by the Health Protection Agency is currently underway to find out more about compliance with rules. It will be published next year.

A Department of Health spokesman said that the findings from the current review will be announced in 2010.

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