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“This is an unprecedented leap forward that is based on science, and not stigmatising preconceptions - something we've long fought for."
By
Michaela Morgan

24 Jul 2017 - 11:55 AM  UPDATED 24 Jul 2017 - 11:55 AM

Blood donation restrictions on gay and bisexual men and sex workers in England and Scotland have been relaxed following a recommendation from the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs.

Men who have sex with men and sex workers can now donate blood three months after they were last sexually active—instead of the previous 12-month rule.  

Consultant physician and committee member James Neuberger told the BBC that the change is due to advancements in testing for Hepatitis B, C and HIV.  

"Technologies to pick up the presence of the virus have greatly improved, so we can now pick up viruses at a much earlier stage in the infection, and therefore it's much easier to tell if a blood donor has the virus."

The Minister for Women and Equalities Justine Greening said: “This government is committed to building an inclusive society that works for everyone, no matter what their gender or sexuality and today we’re taking the next step forward.

“We will build on the significant progress we have made over the past 50 years, tackling some of the historic prejudices that still persist in our laws and giving LGBT people a real say on the issues affecting them,’ she said.

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Activist groups in the UK such as Freedom to Donate, the Terrence Higgins Trust and Stonewall have been campaigning for a change to the 12-month rule for years and have hailed the announcement as a “huge day”.

Blood donations policy lead at the Terrence Higgins Trust—Alex Phillips—said the changes were a "victory for science over stigmatising assumptions" and that "the evidence suggests three months is the right amount of time".

The founder of Freedom to Donate—Ethan Spibey—spoke to BBC Breakfast this weekend and said the 12-month-ban was “quite frankly ridiculous”.

Spibey first decided he wanted to become a blood donor after his grandfather’s life was saved by a blood donation. However, he soon realised that as a gay man, he wasn’t able to.

“Gay men are more likely to be restricted from carrying a blood-borne virus, that is why they are restricted from donating—and we agree with that in line with the medical evidence—but we think that that should move towards an individualised risk-based policy because you can’t just brand an entire group…” Spibey said. 

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The Terrence Higgins Trust posted on their Facebook page that the change was an “unprecedented leap forward that is based on science, and not stigmatising preconceptions - something we've long fought for”.

“Our research, which was used for evidence for this change, shows the majority of sex workers take great care of their sexual health, with 98% rating their sexual health as very important, 76% having a sexual health check up every 3 months, and 98% knowing their HIV status.

“We're also pleased to see a further reduction for men who have sex with men today, paving the way for more progress as further evidence becomes available."

The group added that their work was far from done, urging the government to gather more evidence on the risk of transmission from men who engage in oral sex with men.

“We know from anecdotal evidence that the risk of HIV from oral sex is extremely low, and therefore want to see a further review to asses this in the next two years.’

The changes will come into effect as early as November in Scotland and early 2018 in England.