The British government is considering changing its current one-year deferral period for men who have sex with men (MSM) when it comes to donating blood, reports The Guardian.
Jane Ellison, the public health minister, told Members of Parliament that the government is reviewing the current rules, which prohibit people from donating if they stand a significant chance of contracting HIV. Under the current U.K. policy, adopted in 2011, MSM are banned from donating until 12 months after last having sexual intercourse.
In response to a question from a conservative member of Parliament, Ellison insisted that the government’s top priority is ensuring the blood supply is safe. She also preemptively moved to counter claims that the one-year deferral period is discriminatory.
“It is important to put it on the record that the blood service does not discriminate on sexual orientation,” Ellison said. “Lesbians are free to give blood and their blood donations are extremely appreciated. The deferral period is based on sexual activity, and it applies to a number of other groups other than just men who have sex with men.”
Those other groups referenced by Ellison who are prohibited from giving blood are: people who have ever engaged in — or had sex with someone who engaged in — commercial sex work in the past 12 months, intravenous drug users, and people who have been sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is more common. The reasoning behind the 12-month deferral period for MSM is purportedly based on the need to ensure that donated blood does not carry HIV, as there is a “window period” during which traces of the virus will not show up in blood tests. However, several HIV/AIDS and LGBT activists note that the window period for HIV is much shorter than a year, which has led some to accuse the current policy of discriminating against MSM.
“We want a donation system that is fair and based on up-to-date medical evidence,” a spokesperson for the U.K.-based gay rights group Stonewall told The Guardian. “Currently, gay and bi people cannot give blood if they have had sex in the past 12 months, regardless of whether they used protection. Yet straight people who may have had unprotected sex can donate. … Screening all donors by sexual behavior rather than by sexual orientation would increase blood stocks in times of shortage and create a safer supply by giving a more accurate, non-discriminatory assessment.”
Potential ways of resolving the conflict over the one-year deferral period could include a smaller deferral period for all donors based on their last sexual encounter, or, as advances are made in blood testing technology, doing follow-up testing for all donors before their blood is used. That test is based on a reasonable window period during which HIV will show up if present in the bloodstream, which experts say ranges from a week to a month at most.
The planned review of the U.K.’s blood donation policy comes just as the United States Food & Drug Administration is considering lifting its current lifetime deferral for any MSM who has had sex even once since 1977, which was implemented at the height of the AIDS epidemic, in 1985. The FDA has heard public comment on and is considering moving to a one-year deferral period for MSM and other groups deemed at higher risk of contracting HIV, but there has been no indication as to when that final change will occur.
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