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Wednesday, 02 August 2017

Blood donation rules for gay and bisexual men in Wales to be relaxed

Written by Johanna Carr

Changes making it easier for gay and bisexual men to donate blood will be introduced in Wales early next year, the Welsh Government has said.

Current rules mean that men cannot give blood for 12 months after having sex with another man but the deferral period will be reduced to three months.

The move, announced on Wednesday, follows on from similar announcements in Scotland and England last month.

Public Health Minister Rebecca Evans who ordered the change, which was recommended after a review by the UK's Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO), said she wanted to ensure that "as many people as possible" were able to donate blood and meet the demand of Welsh patients.

She said: "In Wales and the UK, we're fortunate to have one of the safest blood supplies in the world.

"Thanks to advances in medical science, we now have a far better understanding of the way infections are transmitted through blood.

"The changes I'm announcing today will help ensure we keep blood donors and the patients who receive their blood safe, while also ensuring more people have the opportunity to donate blood."

Fears over infections being passed on through donations from gay men led to an outright ban at the height of the Aids epidemic but that was cut to 12 months in 2011.

Medical advances mean that the period can now be cut further and the reduced deferral will also apply to commercial sex workers, those who have sex with a "high" risk partner and to those who have sex with a partner who has been sexually active in areas where HIV is common.

Mrs Evans has written to the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt to express her concerns about the "inadequate notice" the Welsh Government was given ahead of the UK Government's announcement of the change for the NHS in England on July 23.

She said "full and meaningful engagement" at Ministerial and official levels has not taken place on the issue which had "compromised" the Welsh Government's ability to deliver a seamless and coherent policy for our blood services, patients and the public on the basis of the new expert recommendations.

She said: "I expect a more joined up and respectful conversation between governments and look for a clear commitment that we will not be put in an unacceptable position like this again."

Mrs Evans said she had asked the Welsh Blood Service to look at how the changes can be introduced including the use of more personalised risk assessments for individual donors.

The announcement has been welcomed by LGBTI and sexual health campaigners who called for it to lead towards a system of individual risk assessments for potential donors.

Mabli Jones, policy and research manager from Stonewall Cymru Campaigns, said the changes were an "important move" but that it was "vital that this is a stepping stone to a system that doesn't automatically exclude most gay and bi men."

She said: "We would like to see a system where everyone is screened on their individual risk, and we are encouraged that the Public Health Minister has asked the Welsh Blood Service to explore how this can be done."

Sarah Fuhrmann, the national director for Terrence Higgins Trust in Wales, said the HIV/Aids charity was "delighted that the Welsh government has taken quick and decisive action to change its rules for sex workers and gay and bisexual men, just a week and a half after the same changes were announced in England.

"Any restrictions on who can donate blood should be based on evidence, not stigmatising assumptions, so we're heartened that the Welsh government is now looking into the possibility of personalised risk assessments for potential donors."

Ms Fuhrmann added that the change in policy from a lifetime ban to a three month deferral for sex workers was a "huge step forward".

"This is a victory for science over stigmatising assumptions," she added. "The lifetime blood donation ban on anyone who works or used to work in the sex industry in Wales is based on preconceptions rather than evidence, and the rules needed reviewing to fit the facts."

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