Beware Blood Donation Services Bearing Gifts

27/07/2017 16:27 BST | Updated 27/07/2017 16:27 BST
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Blood Transfusion Services from across Britain have announced that the 12-month deferral period on donations from gay and bisexual men will be reduced to three months. The blood donation rules were changed after the respective Governments instructed their blood transfusion services to implement the recommendations of a recent review of blood donor criteria and risk assessment by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO). The changes have been approved in Scotland and England, with Northern Ireland making preparations in the absence of a government. Wales have yet to announce their intention.

This change in policy is a welcome and significant step forward which will allow more gay and bisexual men to donate their blood, but is it an end to unwarranted discrimination against gay and bisexual men? Not quite yet.

The new rules, when they take effect will still not allow, for example, those in monogamous same-sex relationships to donate - the one group of gay and bisexual men it could easily be argued are at the lower risk of HIV or other blood borne viruses. Put simply the new rules, however welcome, still do not accurately assess risk - they remain in my view unjustifiably anchored in sexual orientation discrimination rather than being the assessment of risk that they should be.

The new rules are likely to state "in the last three months have you had oral or anal sex with another man, with or without a condom or other form of protection?". If we break this potential rule down, for example to men who have had oral sex, with another man, with a condom, we know the risks here are virtually zero, and yet the blood service still categorises this as high risk - something which is wildly inconsistent with sexual health messages. This mixed messaging also applies to protected anal sex.

Nevertheless, progress should be welcomed, so yes, these changes are a good thing, they do reduce the discrimination faced by gay and bisexual men, but they are only a step on the journey.

It's been just over a decade since, as the newly elected NUS LGBT officer, I started the Donation Not Discrimination Campaign, it was one of NUS' most popular campaigns and got students, LGBT and otherwise engaged across the country.

At first the campaign was hard, despite the high levels of engagement on campus, there were few in the LGBT sector or in the HIV sector who would entertain the notion that the ban was unjustified. The big organisations like Stonewall and Terrance Higgins Trust wouldn't support the campaign, and HIV Scotland was one of our most vociferous critics. That mattered, because when you walk into a room to convince people of the need for change and they ask "why doesn't x and y support this", it makes your job harder.

It was two small breakthroughs that changed all that. The National Aids Trust and the Anthony Nolan Trust, who specialise in stem cell and bone marrow transplant, announced their support. Anthony Nolan announced their own change in policy, to welcome donations from gay and bisexual men, at our annual NUS LGBT conference to rapturous applause. It wasn't long before the others, while perhaps not joining us to call for the lifetime ban to be removed, started to push for a review.

In 2011 the lifetime ban was finally lifted, and replaced with a one-year deferment, it was a victory but, like now, it was not an end to the discrimination.

An important note to make here is that the situation faced gay and bisexual men in the past decade in relation to sexual risk and blood donation hasn't altered. The, to some, 'justifiable' lifetime ban, and then the 12-month deferment period, was not removed due to some silver bullet or magical improvements in medical science, the situation faced then is largely the same as the situation faced now. There has been no material change, no change in the evidence, the challenges are the same - but what did change was how the evidence was read and understood. And this only happened when the number of voices calling for change increased.

These incremental wins changed the landscape, this new policy is testament to the hard work not only from the days of the Donation Not Discrimination campaign and all those who organised on campus, to the Freedom to Donate campaign who have, with skill, lead the charge today, but to the many people and organisations who have pushed on this issue. There is one other group of people however without whom these changes would have never happened and that is blood transfusion service staff. One such senior staff member at the Scottish Blood Service (SNBTS) I know has done their upmost to bring about change with understanding and reflection.

I still very much believe that the rules should be based on individual risk, not a blanket deferral. So as part of this policy change announcement it's the commitment by blood transfusion services and both the UK and Scottish governments to explore ways in which a more personalised risk assessment could be introduced that gives me the most hope.

I'm pleased to have been asked by the SNBTS to be a member of a new sub-group which will look at how an individual risk assessment could be made a reality and look forward to continuing to work with the them and the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) to eliminate all unwarranted discrimination from the UKs blood donation rules.

For as long as gay and bisexual men, who are not at high risk, are told they are, and their blood is refused, then discrimination exists. We've learned the hard way that equality is won in inches and not in miles so for now let's take this victory. The changes are due to be implemented in Scotland in November 2017 and January 2018 in England, so when they do, if you can, give a pint or two and make a BIG thing about it.