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Landmark change to blood donation criteria in UK

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a landmark change to blood donation criteria in England; men who have sex with men in a long-term relationship will now be able to donate blood. The move, which will also be implemented in each of the devolved administrations, sees the UK become one of the first countries in the world to adopt a more individualised risk-based approach to donor selection criteria.

Following recommendations from the Advisory Committee for the Safety of Blood Tissues and Organs (SaBTO), donors who have had one sexual partner and who have been with their sexual partner for more than 3 months, will be eligible to donate regardless of their gender, the gender of their partner, or the type of sex they have.

The ‘For Assessment of Individualised Risk’ (FAIR) steering group, a collaboration of UK blood services and LGBT charities led by NHSBT and established in 2019, conducted extensive research into the risks associated with more individualised blood donor selection policy. Their report proposed a move away from a blanket 3-month deferral for men who have had sex with men, and instead to identifying a wider range of ‘highest risk behaviours’ which applies to all donors, regardless of sexuality.

In a further step forward for equality in blood donation, under the new selection process, all donors will complete the same donor health check prior to donation, regardless of gender or sexuality, recognising that all donors, including heterosexual men and women, have potential to carry infections.

Anyone who has had the same sexual partner in the last 3 months will be eligible to donate and men who have sex with men will no longer be asked to declare if they have had sex with another man or their sexuality, making blood donation gender neutral and more inclusive. This change will be implemented by Summer 2021.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This landmark change to blood donation is safe and it will allow many more people, who have previously been excluded by donor selection criteria, to take the opportunity to help save lives.

This is a positive step and recognises individuals for the actions they take, rather than their sexual preference.”

Minister for Blood Donation Lord Bethell said: “By closely examining the latest evidence relating to blood donation and sexual behaviour, we have been able to bring forward more inclusive policy to allow people to safely donate blood to save lives.

I am grateful to the members of the FAIR steering group, including LGBT charities, for the work they have done over the last 18 months to enable us to bring this policy, which many have called for, to fruition.”

Su Brailsford, Associate Medical Director at NHS Blood and Transplant and chair of FAIR said: “Patients rely on the generosity of donors for their lifesaving blood and so we welcome the decision to accept the FAIR recommendations in full. We are proud to have the safest blood supply in the world and I’m pleased to have concluded that these new changes to donor selection will keep blood just as safe.

This is just the beginning. We will keep collaborating with LGBT representatives, patients and donors so when we make these changes our process for getting accurate donor information about sexual behaviours is inclusive and done well. FAIR has also made a recommendation to government that further evidence-based reviews are needed for other deferrals such as how we determine risk based on travel.”

Dr Michael Brady, Medical Director at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “Our first priority must be to ensure the safety of the blood supply in the UK. We welcome the move to a more individualised risk assessment approach to blood donation. The UK is leading the way in ensuring that blood donation is more inclusive and now will allow many more gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men to donate blood.

There is certainly more work to do and we will continue to work to ensure that our blood donation service is inclusive, evidence-based and both maximises the numbers who can donate while ensuring our blood supply is safe.”