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Gay and bisexual men launch ‘illegal’ blood bank in protest at discriminatory donation restrictions

Emma Powys Maurice November 14, 2019
Blood donor

Gay and bisexual men are still subject to restrictions on blood donations (Ana Arevalo/AFP/Getty)

An ‘illegal blood bank’ for gay and bisexual men is opening at a secret London location in protest at blood donation restrictions for men who have sex with men.

The NHS has seen a 25 per cent drop in men donating blood since 2014 and requires 135,000 new donors each year to maintain blood levels. Blood stocks also tend to fall between December and January.

In spite of this, current blood donor policy makes it illegal for men who have sex with men to donate blood if they have had sex within three months of donating.

Campaigners are calling for the three-month deferral period to be lifted, saying this policy is unnecessary, discriminatory, and a waste of safe blood.

“Our position is simple – anyone who can safely donate blood should be able to,” said Ethan Spibey, founder of FreedomToDonate, which launched the campaign in collaboration with UNILAD.

“We’re aiming to raise awareness of the unfairness in blood donation on a huge scale and demonstrate the incredible potential of those thousands of gay and bi men who could potentially donate through an alternative model.”

(GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty)

Qualified medical professionals at the illegal blood bank will take and test the blood to demonstrate how much blood is going to waste, and show an alternative way of identifying new donors irrespective of their sexuality.

Blood donation restrictions for gay and bisexual men are rooted in fears of HIV/AIDS, but this risk is now minimal. The lifetime ban on blood donation for gay and bisexual men was lifted in most of the UK in 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in 2016.

NHS Blood and Transplant states that the three-month rule still exists as there is a small chance the screening tests they carry out to detect blood-borne viruses will not be able to pick up recently acquired infections.

But FreedomToDonate says the blanket three-month deferral period for men who have sex with men does not take into account factors which impact risk levels for all donors, such as regular STI testing.

They are calling for a “fairer blood donation system” that uses risk assessments based on individual sexual behaviour rather than sexuality, thus creating thousands more eligible donors.

“This is not just about ensuring fairness and equality, but giving people the opportunity to help save their loved ones lives with blood donations,” said Spibey.

“Not only that, it’s about the blood that we are losing each year by preventing healthy, willing donors from donating just because of their sexuality.”

(FreedomToDonate)

Spibey founded FreedomToDonate after being told that he couldn’t donate blood to save his grandfather’s life due to his sexuality. His petition to stop blood donation bias in the NHS has now been signed by nearly 600,000 people.

The campaign is sponsored by professional rugby player Keegan Hirst. “People should be empowered to celebrate who they are but this won’t happen if there are policies in place, which discriminate against certain communities,” he said.

“I’ll be donating blood at the illegal Blood Bank in the hope it leads to gay and bisexual men who are safe to donate, being able to do so.” 

Gay and bisexual men looking to join him can register to become a donor on November 23  here.

In response to the FreedomToDonate initiative, Dr Su Brailsford of NHS Blood and Transplant said: “We’re already working collaboratively with LGBT+ groups on blood donation, through the FAIR steering group.

“This group is using an evidence-based approach to explore if a more individualised blood donation risk assessment can be safely and practically introduced, while ensuring the safe supply of blood to patients.

“We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to donate whilst continuing to ensure the safety of patients remains our number one priority.”

More: blood donation, blood donation restrictions, FreedomToDonate, HIV/AIDS, sti screening

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