The UK’s pioneering gay blood donation policy

Dan Costen

December 14, 2020

Today the UK announced the introduction of one of the world’s most progressive and pioneering blood donation policies. For our campaign group, FreedomToDonate, this marks the culmination of six years of work and is a real moment to celebrate.

We have always taken the view that population level-based regulations are too generalised and that an individualised risk assessment would be to everyone’s benefit, particularly the most important people with a stake in blood donation: recipients.

Indeed, my reason for getting involved with the campaign in the first place was the inequity and unfairness that I felt. My blood could save someone’s life, but due to my sexuality, I was automatically banned from donating.

Our first success came in 2017, when the Government announced it would reduce the deferral period for certain groups, including men who have sex with men (MSM), from 12 to three months.

This was a hugely welcome step in the right direction for us, but it still applied population-based criteria. Since then I have been FreedomToDonate’s representative on the For the Assessment of Individualised Risk (FAIR) steering group, working with clinicians, academics and other stakeholder groups to look at how a truly individualised risk-based approach could be implemented.

The Department of Health and Social Care today accepted those recommendations, which means that from next summer anyone can donate blood unless they’ve had anal sex with someone new or more than one partner in the last three months. This applies whether you are male or female, gay, straight or bi, active or passive.

Through FreedomToDonate’s followers and supporters, I know that gay and bi men accept that NHS Blood & Transplant have to prioritise recipients. But many who are in long-term relationships struggled to understand how they should fall under the same rules as someone with riskier behaviour. Many also pointed to the fact that MSM had to pass a higher threshold – where MSM had to avoid sex for 3 months before donating, a heterosexual person could be as promiscuous as they liked.

And that’s why today’s announcement is so significant. It means each donor’s level of risk will be taken into account on an individualised basis. I believe that this change is the right thing to do, not only because it is more equitable, but because it will have multiple benefits too.

At the start of 2020, NHS Blood and Transplant called for 68,000 new male donors to register. In 2019, it was 54,000. This is because only men’s blood is used for complete blood transfusions in newborn babies, and it is also preferred for in-womb transfusions. Men’s blood is also needed to make Fresh Frozen Plasma, which contains clotting proteins and is used for trauma patients with massive blood loss. Men also provide 93 per cent of platelets, 50 per cent of which go to people with cancer to reduce internal bleeding. All incredible and vital reasons why we should be maximising male donors.

I am therefore very excited about the contribution that today’s policy change could make. Wanting to give blood is one of the most selfless acts a person can make, but its impact could not be more important: it is literally lifesaving, which is why so many people continue to donate. In fact, the reason that FreedomToDonate was established in the first place was that its founder, Ethan Spibey, was turned away when he went to donate to repay the person who saved his grandfather’s life.

I’d encourage anyone who is able to safely donate blood to do so – one in four of us will need a blood transfusion at some point in our life. And now more people than ever will be able to do so.

Written by Dan Costen

Dan Costen is Head of Media & PR for FreedomToDonate. He tweets at @dancosten.

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