Comment: The need to reform gay blood donation is as pressing as ever
Last September I led the internal campaign within the Liberal Democrats to make it party policy to end the MSM blood ban.
Only two weeks before it was to be debated on the conference floor, I had a couple of phone calls from individuals who had been privy to the conclusion of the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) donor selection review telling me that the recommendation was to end the lifetime ban and introduce a 12-month deferral.
We decided it was not good enough, that it didn’t protect the blood bank adequately and that it still judged people not on how safe they have sex, but on who they do it with. I amended the conference motion to say just that.
I may no longer be a Lib Dem, but on that day, as Health Minister Paul Burstow sat watching in the Conference hall, members overwhelmingly voted my motion through. In a prior article, Mr Burstow said that the 12-month deferral would not be “the final word”. Nearly 12 months later, we have heard nothing from the government. No desire to pursue a review based on the risk of individual behaviour, not even a sensible demand to simply risk-assess what difference the 2011 changes have made to the safety of the blood bank.
Tom King’s government e-petition opposing the blood ban and deferral closes tomorrow, we must do our utmost to get people to sign it, share it and demand an adequate response from the government on the future of blood donation criteria. As the petition was launched before the government lifted the lifetime ban, it still references it; but this is a moot point, the demands of the petition are to end the ban and to replace it with criteria based on individual risk, explicitly opposing a deferral. This has not been met and the deferral is simply a ban by any other name. The petition is therefore as relevant as ever.
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We know so much more about infection now than we did in the past. We know how to diagnose it at very early stages and we know how to treat it. We also know how you catch it and the correlative factor surrounding transmission – you do not get HIV from gay sex, you get it from unprotected sex. Not once does the blood criteria mention condoms. That’s great news for the heterosexual woman who has had unprotected sex with a multitude of different men over the past few months, because she can give blood today. The prevalence model does not exclude all high-risk donors. Review after review consistently concludes that the best way to protect from infection is to use condoms. Let’s base the criteria on that instead.
If you require evidence that the conclusions weren’t particularly well-thought-out in terms of the final criteria, you need to look no further than a woman who is married to a man who has once had sex with another man many years ago. The current criteria means that he can give blood. However, every time his wife has sex with him, she is banned from donating blood for a further 12 months. This is because although the criteria for MSM individuals was updated, the criteria for women who sexually interact with them has not.
I’d like to reiterate, as I have done throughout my campaigning on this issue, that I’ve refused to use the words “homophobic”, “discrimination” and “bigoted” when it comes to the blood ban. Others have, but I have a great level of respect for the NHS and I like to think that although wrong, the conclusions of the SaBTO review were the product of good intentions. The blood ban has never been about gay and bisexual men and how awful it is that we’re institutionally excluded, for me it has always been about the safety and well-being of the patient. Like many others, I want to give blood to save lives, not to endanger them. I want to change the blood criteria so that we can maximise the supply of blood to those who need it whilst minimising the risk.
Mr Burstow, we are waiting for your “final word”. I’m an organ donor and I’m on the Anthony Nolan Trust register. They do not consider me a risk for having sex with men, they judge me on my individual behaviour. It’s time the blood service did too.
Chris Ward is an LGBT campaigner and former councillor who led the campaign to change Liberal Democrat party policy on the blood ban.
Watch his speech to the Liberal Democrat 2011 conference below: