The ban on gay men in Britain donating blood is being lifted because it was decided that the rule could be discriminatory and might breach equality legislation.
But these men will only be permitted to donate if they have not had sexual intercourse for a decade. Homosexuals who are or have recently been sexually active will continue to be barred from giving blood. Anne Milton, the public health minister, is expected to announce the changes within weeks and she is understood to be backed by Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, and Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities Minister.
Donated blood is screened for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases but a tiny number of infections are missed because there can be a time lag before they show themselves experts say. The current system is based on trust. There are no checks to ensure donors are telling the truth about their sexuality and around seven per cent of sexually active gay men are thought to give blood despite the ban.
These changes were instigated by SaBTO, the advisory committee on the safety of blood, tissues and organs, which had concluded that if the ban were replaced by a new rule preventing gay men from giving blood for five years after having sex with another man, the risk of HIV reaching the blood supply would go up by less than 5%. It is estimated that this figure would halve if the “deferral” period were increased to 10 years, so ministers backed this option. The 10-year delay also ensures that people who are not aware they have contracted HIV do not pass it on accidentally.
Figures reveal that of the nearly 86,500 people with HIV in Britain, a quarter is unaware that they have an infection. About 42% of people infected with HIV in 2009 were homosexual men, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust, the HIV charity. Homosexual men are also at risk of passing on other sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.
Lisa Power, policy director at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said, “It is my understanding that no recommendations have been made to the [health] minister.” She added that THT would not comment until the review is complete and that the charity’s position would be “absolutely based on that evidence”.
Gay rights campaigners have pushed for the ban to be lifted, saying many homosexual men are in long-term monogamous relationships, practice safe sex or have been celibate for years. A Government source said, “A complete ban is unfair and discriminatory but we need to protect public health, so the 10-year rule is what is being considered.”
The National AIDS Trust and Stonewall also said they were not aware of any imminent announcement on the policy. A statement from SaBTO, which is carrying out the review, said: “SaBTO is currently reviewing the evidence base for donor exclusion and deferral in the UK, including criteria which relate to sexual behaviour. Once the review is complete, SaBTO will make recommendations to the government as to whether any changes to the current policy are warranted. A recommendation is expected in summer 2011.”