The lifetime ban on blood donation by men who have had sex with men is to be lifted following an evidence-based review by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO).
The recommendation, which has been accepted by the health ministers in England, Scotland and Wales, means men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than 12 months ago will be able to donate, if they meet the other donor selection criteria. Men who have had anal or oral sex with another man in the past 12 months, with or without a condom, will still not be eligible to donate blood.
The change will be implented by NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) in England and North Wales on Monday 7 November and by the Blood Services of Scotland and Wales on the same date.
The advisory committee, comprised of leading experts in the field, joined by patient groups and key stakeholders, carried out a rigorous review of the latest available evidence including:
- the risk of infection being transmitted in blood;
- attitudes to compliance with the donor selection criteria; and
improvements in testing of donated blood.
- The Committee found the evidence no longer supported the permanent exclusion of men who have had sex with men.
The change means the criteria for men who have had sex with men will be in line with other groups who are deferred from giving blood for 12 months due to infection risks associated with sexual behaviours.
Public Health Minister Anne Milton said:
“Blood donations are a lifeline, and many of us would not have loved ones with us today if it was not for the selfless act of others.
”Our blood service is carefully managed to maintain a safe and sufficient supply of blood for transfusions. Appropriate checks based on robust science must be in place to maintain this safety record and the Committee’s recommendation reflects this. It is important that people comply with all donor selection criteria, which are in place to protect the health of both donors and transfusion recipients.”
Professor Deirdre Kelly from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs said:
“Around two million individuals generously donate blood every year in the UK to save patients’ lives. The SaBTO review examined the best available scientific evidence for UK blood donor selection in relation to sexual behaviours. Our recommendation takes account of new data that have become available since the last review in 2006, as well as scientific and technological advances in the testing of blood.
“Adherence to the donor selection criteria is vital to maintain the safety of the blood supply, and donors need to be assured that the criteria are evidence-based. We are confident that this change maintains the safety of the blood supply.”
Dr Lorna Williamson, NHS Blood and Transplant’s Medical and Research Director said:
“NHS Blood and Transplant’s priority as a blood service is to provide a safe and sufficient supply of blood for patients. We welcome this review and its conclusions. It gives us an opportunity to broaden our donor acceptance on the basis of the latest scientific evidence.
“It is essential that our donor selection rules are based on good evidence to maintain their credibility with donors, and this change gives us an updated policy that is proportionate to the current risk.
“The SaBTO review concluded that the safety of the blood supply would not be affected by the change and we would like to reassure patients receiving transfusions that the blood supply is as safe as it reasonably can be and amongst the safest in the world. There has been no documented transmission of a blood-borne virus in the UK since 2005, with no HIV transmission since 2002.”
Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), said:
“We welcome this decision, which is based on strong new evidence that all the experts are agreed on. These regulations will ensure the safety of the blood supply for all of us while also being fair and equal in their application. We can now detect blood-borne viruses earlier and have more understanding of them, and the change reflects that.
“The remaining deferral regulation for sexually active gay men is based on their heightened risk, as a group, of sexually acquired blood-borne viruses. Changing that depends on reducing gay men’s risk of HIV and other STIs to the same level as the rest of the population, and re-emphasising the vital importance of safer sex as far too many gay men still become infected with HIV each year. We will continue to campaign to improve gay men’s sexual health to a level where the regulations can be the same for all, regardless of sexuality.”
Coordinator of the UK Thalassaemia Society Elaine Miller said:
“Together with my colleague Dr Asa’ah Nkohkwo of the Sickle Cell Society, we have been members of the Blood Donor Selection Steering Group throughout the review of blood donor selection criteria related to sexual behaviour. We are completely satisfied that patient safety has been regarded as paramount throughout the review process. Patients should therefore be reassured that their safety will not be compromised by this change.
“We are fortunate enough to have an excellent system of blood donation in the UK which depends on the generosity and good faith of individual donors. Our members lives depend on this generosity and good faith and we are thankful to all those who come forward to donate blood.”
SaBTO considered the evidence for the current deferral of commercial sex workers (other than those with a history of intravenous drug use) at the same time, but concluded that additional data were needed before it could consider recommending a change.
Notes to editors
For further information, contact the SaBTo press office via the Department of Health newsdesk on 020 7210 5221.
SaBTO’s responsibilities include reviewing the evidence base for the major criteria for accepting blood donors, and making recommendations accordingly to the four UK Health Ministers on blood donation policy. Information about SaBTO, including membership, terms of reference and meeting minutes, can be found on the Department of Health website.
SaBTO members are leading experts in a wide range of scientific and medical disciplines such as haematology, virology and epidemiology; and were joined in this review by representatives of groups such as the Terence Higgins Trust and Stonewall, speaking for gay men, and the UK Thalassaemia Society and the Sickle Cell Society, whose members are frequently transfused patients.
The blood donor selection criteria are published on NHS Blood and Transplant’s website, at Who Can’t Give Blood?