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The UK has reversed a ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, removing restrictions that have been in place since the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Starting next year, men in long-term relationships will be allowed to donate blood without restrictions, CNN reports.
The change was implemented after a UK advisory board recommended that donors be considered on an individual basis, rather than a blanket ban for all men who have sex with men (MSM).
Health Secretary Matt Hancock called the change a “positive step” that “recognizes individuals for the actions they take, rather than their sexual preference.”
The NHS Blood and Transplant Service issued a statement saying it was “very pleased” that blood donation rules had been changed.
Bisexual lawmaker Michael Fabricant, a member of the ruling Conservative party, tweeted that the rule change was “such a contrast to the attitude I met campaigning at the Department of Health many years back when someone said ‘gays can’t be trusted to tell the truth about their sex lives.'”
However, while the move has been hailed as a “landmark” reversal, it represents a de facto ban for other MSM, who are still required to abstain from sex for three months prior to before they can donate.
Nancy Kelley, chief executive of LGBTQ rights charity Stonewall, said in a statement that the change would “ensure more gay and bi men can donate blood, and represents an important first step towards a donation selection policy entirely based on an individualized assessment of risk.”
“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,” Kelley added, “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.”
Many countries including the United States implemented restrictions banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood during the HIV/AIDS crisis.
However, such blanket bans have increasingly come under attack from LGBTQ activists, noting the stereotypes it conveys about gay and bisexual men and pointing to better screening protocols to ensure HIV and other sexually transmitted infections aren’t able to enter blood supplies.
This year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA reduced its deferral period — the between a gay and bisexual man having sex and when they are eligible to donate — from one year to three months.
It came amid concerns that categorically eliminating gay and bisexual men who had survived the virus from the pool of eligible donors would lead to reductions in antibody-rich plasma needed to fight the disease.
The previous one-year deferral period was introduced by the Obama administration, marking a change from a lifetime ban implemented in the 1980s.
Even the reduced three-month deferral period has been criticized by some prominent gay men, including Yuval David and Andy Cohen, who have argued the deferral period discriminates against gay men in committed relationships, treating them differently from their heterosexual peers.
Earlier this year, congressional Democrats introduced legislation to alter FDA blood donation rules for LGBTQ people, urging for a shift from a sexual orientation-based deferral period to an individual risk assessment.
The bill, named the Science in Blood Donation Act of 2020, would require the FDA to revise its guidance on reducing the risk of HIV transmission by blood and blood products by basing it on the “window period” — referring to the time it takes for HIV antibodies to show up in the blood — of the most-up-to-date testing and an “individual risk-based analysis.”
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