Peter Tatchell: The gay blood ban is medically unjustified discrimination
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell writes on why the UK’s blood donation rules for gay and bisexual men need reforming.
The current ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood within 12 months of them last having sex is medically unjustified discrimination based on sexual orientation. I hope the government will support proposals for a shorter exclusion period based on a more refined risk assessment.
Protecting the blood supply is the number one priority but ensuring blood safety does not require a rule that men who have sex with men cannot donate blood for a year since their last same-sex encounter.
A much shorter exclusion period of six months is reasonable. The only donors who should be banned are people who have engaged in risky sexual behaviour and those whose HIV and Hepatitis A and B status cannot be accurately determined because of the delay between the date of infection and the date when the virus and antibodies manifest and become detectable in a 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 protect their health and 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 have 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 identify men whose blood may not be safe.
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There is a strong case for only excluding gay and bisexual men who’ve had oral or anal sex without a condom within the preceding six months.
Bizarrely, the UK blood service’s currently 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 a condom – is grounds for continuing to refuse a donor under the existing 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. Similar criteria should apply to heterosexual blood donors – not just to gay and bisexual ones.
Peter Tatchell is director of the London-based human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and coordinator of the Equal Love campaign.
As with all comment pieces the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of