On Tuesday 27th October, a procession of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students descended on London in an NUS protest against the National Blood Service’s (NBS) policy of refusing gay and bisexual men the right to donate blood.
At present, a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man is banned from donating blood for life. NUS believes that this lifetime ban is discriminatory and perpetuates the myth that AIDS is a ‘gay disease’. Stonewall, the National Aids Trust, Unison LGBT, and a growing number of scientific and medical experts, have also publicly stated their concern over the ban.
Other minority groups which are permanently excluded from donating blood include people who have injected drugs, prostitutes, and those who have ever contracted syphilis, hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Temporary bans apply to people that have visited certain parts of the world and those who have recently had a tatoo or piercing.
The NUS LGBT Campaign against the gay blood ban has been active for the past five years. Hundreds of students have joined the cause and thousands more have signed their petition. They have called for the independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SoBTO), who ultimately determine NBS’s policy, to end the blanket ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. Campaigners insist that the selection criteria should be based on high-risk behaviour, not on sexual orientation.
The welfare officer for Sussex’s LGBT group said: “It is completely unfair that men who have sex with men are banned from donating blood for life.”
Daf Adley, NUS LGBT Officer, said: “Whilst donating blood is not a right, it is a responsibility – one which healthy gay and bisexual men should be able to exercise without fear of prejudice or discrimination. The ban as it currently stands demeans their ability to participate in this altruistic act, and contributes to the damaging and prejudiced perception of gay and bisexual men which belongs in the past.”
A statement released by NHS Blood and Transplant (HNSBT) explains that, in order to assure the continued safety of the blood supply, the current policy is to ask those people in groups shown to have a particularly high risk of carrying blood-borne viruses not to give blood. These include men who have ever had sex with men. “The reason for this exclusion rests on specific sexual behaviour, such as anal and oral sex between men, rather than the sexuality of the person wishing to donate. There is, therefore, no exclusion of gay men who have never had sex with a man, or of women who have sex women.”
In 2007, findings by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) revealed that men who have sex with men continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV and account for 63% of HIV diagnoses where the infection was likely to have been acquired in the UK.
Epidemiological evidence in the UK also shows that there has been a significant increase in sexually transmitted infections that are blood-borne, such as hepatitis B and syphilis, among men who have sex with men. Between 2002 and 2006, there was a 117% increase in syphilis infections in sexually active gay men.
NHSBT added that, “Completely removing the current exclusion on blood donation from men who have sex with men would result in a fivefold increase in the risk of HIV-infected blood entering the blood supply.”
However, Professor Deirdre Kelly, a liver specialist from Birmingham Children’s Hospital, has spoken of the need for more people to donate blood and has stressed she is not satisfied that certain deferral and exclusion policies are consistent with estimated risk.
Yused Azad from the National AIDS Trust added: “If you look at five-year deferrals [for gay men] with fourth-generation HIV testing, there is no significant risk.”
Dr Richard Teddler, a microbiologist from University College London (UCL), dismissed this view at a conference held last week, stating that he did not think gay men who claim to have abstained from sexual intercourse for at least five years would make a significant difference to safety. “Viruses are not politically correct”, he said.
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 HPA is currently underway to find out more about compliance with the rules. A Department of Health spokesman said the findings from the current review will be published in 2010.