The lifetime ban on the donation of blood by men who have had sex with men will be lifted from today and replaced by a one-year deferral.
The decision means men whose last sexual contact with another man was more than 12 months ago will be free to donate blood if they meet the other donor selection criteria. Men who have had anal or oral sex with another man in the past 12 months, with or without a condom, will still not be eligible to donate blood.
In announcing her decision to change to a one-year deferral, Michelle O’Neill said: “As Health Minister my first responsibility in this matter is patient safety. Surveillance data from England, Scotland and Wales and survey evidence from across Britain and the north of Ireland have provided assurance that the risk is lower with a one-year deferral. My decision is based on the evidence regarding the safety of donated blood.”
The change will be implemented by the Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) from today and means the criteria will be in line with other groups who are deferred from giving blood for 12 months due to infection risks associated with sexual behaviours.
Michelle O’Neill continued saying: “Blood donors save lives every day. The need is constant. That’s why donating blood is so important. Many of us would not have loved ones with us today were it not for the selfless acts of others.
“Our blood service is carefully managed to maintain a safe and sufficient supply of blood for transfusions. The safety of donated blood depends on two things: donor selection and the testing of blood. Every blood donation is tested for HIV and a number of other organisms.
“Not even the most advanced tests are 100% reliable, so it is vitally important that every donor complies with all the donor selection rules. These rules are in place to protect the health of donors and of patients who receive blood transfusions.”
A lifetime ban on blood donation by men who have had sex with men (MSM) was introduced in the UK and many other countries in the 1980’s in response to the emergence of AIDS.
In May 2011, the UK expert group on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) concluded that the evidence no longer supported a lifetime ban on blood donation by MSM, and in September 2011 the Health Ministers in England, Scotland and Wales adopted a one-year deferral for MSM. The new policy was introduced in November 2011.
In Northern Ireland, the lifetime ban on blood donation by MSM remained in place.
The continuation of the lifetime ban in NI was challenged in the courts in 2013. The judgment in the judicial review case was delivered in October 2014. The judge ruled, among other findings, that blood donor deferral policy was a matter for the Secretary of State for Health, not the Health Minister. In March 2016 the Court of Appeal overturned this ruling and determined that this is a devolved matter.
Regarding the safety of donated blood for the recipients, recent evidence in the form of surveillance data from England, Scotland and Wales and a major survey of donors across Britain and the north of Ireland has confirmed that donated blood is safer now than it was before the change to a one-year deferral for MSM in GB in 2011.
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong Supports Ban Lifting
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong has said while the lifting of the gay blood ban is welcome, more needs done to achieve full equality for LGBT+ people.
Strangford MLA Ms Armstrong was speaking as the policy change, which had been announced earlier this year by the Health Minister, came into effect on Thursday. It means men who haven’t had sex with other men within the past 12 months will be free to donate blood.
However, Ms Armstrong said the fact the repealing of the ban only applied to men who hadn’t had sexual contact with another man within the past year was not true equality.
She added: “The blood ban was lifted in England, Scotland and Wales five years ago, so for gay men in Northern Ireland to suffer discrimination since then due to the prejudices of one political party is totally unacceptable. Therefore, the repeal of the ban is a welcome move.
“However, to only allow celibate gay men to donate is still a major form of discrimination which reinforces negative stereotypes about gay men in particular. It only feeds into the absurdity which surrounded the blood ban in the first place.
“Repeal of the ban is certainly a good first step but that is precisely all it is – a first step. More needs to be done to achieve full equality and I would urge the Minister to look at the evidence and take the rest of those steps immediately.”