Since 1985, men who have ever had sex with another man (MSM) have been permanently excluded from donating blood in Britain. Today, ministers announced a change to this rule, so that only those who have had sex with another man in the previous year will be excluded.
A major piece of social research - published today in the British Medical Journal - has informed this shift in policy. The research team was led by Prof Kaye Wellings and included researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and NatCen. It involved a population-based survey of 1,028 men who reported sexual experience with another man. Qualitative interviews were also carried out, including with men who had donated blood when they were ineligible to do so.
The study found that MSM widely regarded the lifetime ban on blood donation as out-dated, at variance with current scientific evidence, and consequently unfair and discriminatory. By introducing a one-year deferral rule, blood donor policy for this group has come more in line with other groups at increased risk of HIV. The change also brings Britain more in line with other countries who’ve introduced deferral periods: six months in South Africa; 12 months in Australia, Sweden and Japan; and five years in New Zealand.
As part of our analysis we also looked at non-compliance with donation regulations. One in ten men reported having donated blood since becoming ineligible under the lifetime ban, 2.5% in the past 12 months. The reasons men gave for this included:
- self-categorisation as low risk,
- concerns about confidentiality,
- misunderstanding the rule, or
- the perceived inequity of the rule.
Other men had discounted the experience that barred them from donating blood, highlighting the need to extend health information beyond men who identify as gay and bisexual. Many men considered the lifetime ban to be unfair, discriminatory and lacking a clear rationale whereas a one-year deferral rule was generally seen as feasible and acceptable. Improvements to communication and confidentiality, and a clear explanation of the rationale for the new criteria, will now be essential.