The lifetime ban on men who have had sex with men (MSM) is an issue that our party has always felt uncomfortable with. Superficially it looks little more than a discriminatory throwback to the 1980s stereotypes associated with gay men and increased risk of sexual disease.
Yesterday the Government took a significant step in changing their position by announcing the lifting of the lifetime ban on MSM from giving blood. So let me give you the detail about how that decision was reached, and what it means for men wanting to donate blood.
The previous Government had also questioned the validity of the lifetime ban, and in 2006 the then Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (MSBTO) reviewed the permanent exclusion of men who have had sex with men. That review considered that despite developments and improvements in testing and knowledge of blood borne viral infections, there was still insufficient data regarding compliance to determine the potential impact of any changes. As a result, no changes to the policy were recommended at that time.
Fast forward four years and a study, by a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), on the understanding of compliance with the permanent deferral contributed to a review of donor deferral periods by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO, MSBTO’s successor) completed in May 2011. SaBTO’s review also confirmed that there had been significant improvements in blood donation testing since the last review, leading to a revision of the ‘window periods’ when viral infections in donated blood are undetectable.
As a result, SaBTO have now recommended that the introduction of a 12 month deferral period for MSM was sufficient to maintain blood safety. SaBTO’s recommendation was that the 12month deferral was still required because of the nature of Hepatitis B infection, and of the screening tests used, it is necessary to allow 12 months from any higher risk behaviour as this is long enough for the donor to have undergone and recovered from an infection.
The health departments of England, Scotland and Wales have now subsequently announced that they have accepted SaBTO’s recommendation that men whose last sexual contact, anal or oral sex (with or without a condom), with another man was more than 12 months ago will now be able to donate blood. These changes will come into effect from 7 November 2011.
The Government has undeniably made progress on an issue that many in our party have worked tirelessly for many years to see changed. Some people reading this may consider the announcement to be a half measure, and will be disappointed that some MSM are still prevented from donating blood. However, they should also recognise that this decision was made on the recommendation of the independent scientific SaBTO and their expert Steering Group comprised of relevant clinical experts and stakeholders from MSM (the National Aids Trust, Gay Men Fighting AIDS, Stonewall and the Terence Higgins Trust) and patient (UK Thalassaemia Society and Sickle Cell Society) groups.
Liberal Democrats can be proud that it is this Coalition Government that has lifted the lifetime ban on MSM from donating blood. And they can rest assured this won’t be the final word on this issue. We have made progress based on current independently assessed scientific evidence. And what’s more, this Government will continue to follow where the science and the evidence takes us.