The UK just took an important step in making blood donation more inclusive

Rules are changing in the UK meaning more gay and bisexual men will be able to donate blood.

The government’s adjusted rules, which will be rolled out across the UK, mean that gay and bisexual men in long-term relationships will be able to donate blood. Until now, the government’s policy has stipulated that gay and bisexual men were not allowed to donate blood unless they stopped having sex with men for three months — known as the deferral period. 

The new rules, which will come into force in summer 2021, state that “donors who have had one sexual partner and who have been with their sexual partner for more than three months, will be eligible to donate regardless of their gender, the gender of their partner, or the type of sex they have.” The changed policy will also focus on “individual behaviours” in a more individualised risk assessment of donors, rather than imposing a blanket ban, per the government announcement. 

All blood donors, regardless of gender or sexuality, will now have to complete the same health check prior to donation — a move that recognises that all donors can carry sexually transmitted infections, including heterosexual men and women. Gay and bisexual men will no longer be asked to declare their sexuality or whether they’ve had sex with another man when donating. 

Donors who’ve had more than one sexual partner, or a new sexual partner in the last three months are eligible to donate unless they have had anal sex. Per BBC News, this is because the new rules identify anal sex as “one of the sexual behaviours that carries the most risk of a sexually transmitted infection.” 

LGBTQ advocacy organisations have welcomed the changes. Nancy Kelley, chief executive of Stonewall, said the move was an important first step in making blood donation more inclusive. 

“This change will help ensure more gay and bi men can donate blood, and represents an important first step towards a donation selection policy entirely based on an individualised assessment of risk. We will continue to work with government to build on this progress and ensure that more people, including LGBT+ people, can donate blood safely in the future,” said Kelley. 

…an important first step in making blood donation more inclusive.

“While we welcome today’s news, we know much more still needs to be done to tackle the challenges that lead to gay and bi men, along with other groups of people including Black African communities, sex workers, and trans communities, being at higher risk of acquiring HIV and other STIs,” she added. 

Dr Michael Brady, medical director at HIV and sexual health organisation Terrence Higgins Trust, said the organisation welcomes the new individualised risk assessment approach.  

“Welcome changes include the differentiation between oral and anal sex, and for those whose partner is HIV positive and virally supressed due to six months or more of adherence to treatment,” said Brady. “There is certainly more work to do and we will continue to work to ensure that our blood donation service is inclusive and evidence based.

“We now need to look at the restrictions in place for other groups, including former injecting drug users, to see if we can safely make the blood donation eligibility even more inclusive.” 

Around the world, many countries still have policies in place preventing men who have sex with men from donating blood. In the U.S., gay and bisexual men have been subject to blanket bans on blood donation since the 1980s. In 2015, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revised its rules, requiring men to abstain from sex with other men for at least a year before donating blood. In 2020, the FDA issued new rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the deferral period to three months. 

The UK’s health and social care secretary Matt Hancock called the move a “landmark change,” and said, “This is a positive step and recognises individuals for the actions they take, rather than their sexual preference.”