Potential blood donors will no longer be asked if they’ve had sex with a partner from an area where HIV is endemic.
Blood donation among Black people in the UK has always been a longstanding issue.
At present, 1,300 Black donors are needed to give blood to provide transfusions for those with sickle cell – an inherited blood disorder that is particularly common among Black people.
Despite the growing demand for more Black donors, they have often been limited from giving blood due to one particularly outdated question which is now finally being removed.
The government today revealed that it will remove the question of sexual activity in Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2021.
It follows after a long campaign to widen the criteria which has been deemed “outdated” and “discriminatory”.
Currently, prospective donors are asked if they have recently had sex with a “partner who has, or you think may have, been sexually active in parts of the world where HIV/Aids is very common” and references “most countries in Africa”.
If a person has, they are deferred for three months after the last sexual contact with that partner.
This means Black African donors and other potential donors in long-term relationships have been unable to donate blood.
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid has called the move a “progressive step forward” to “reducing limitations for people to donate blood”.
“This will make it easier for Black donors in particular to donate blood, ultimately saving lives,” he said.
“We are creating a fairer system for blood donation. And as we recover from this pandemic, we are committed to levelling up society, which includes improving access to services for everyone.”
Other questions remain on the donor forms to ensure individual, high-risk behaviours are picked up and those donors are deferred from donation.
This marks a significant step for donors from Black African, Black Caribbean and of Black mixed backgrounds, who are more likely to have the rare blood sub-group, such as Ro, that many Black sickle cell patients have.
With this rule change, it opens up the possibility for more donors to come forward and could help change attitudes towards blood donations among the Black community, which could help improve and save lives in the UK.
Su Brailsford, interim associate medical director at NHS Blood and Transplant and chair of FAIR said: “We are proud to have one of the safest blood supplies in the world and I’m pleased that the latest evidence-based advice on donor eligibility has been accepted in full, creating an even more equitable, better experience for all donors.
“Coming into effect by the end of 2021, we hope this change will also remove the unease long-felt by some donors about this – in particular the Black African community whose needs we are working hard to listen to and better address, those of African heritage, and their partners, who are all disproportionately affected.”
The change follows recommendations from the FAIR steering group, a collaboration of experts in the UK blood services and LGBT+ charities led by NHS Blood and Transport (NHSBT) established in 2019. The steering group looked at the implications of the question and concluded it could safely be removed.
In the UK, all donations are tested for a number of possible infections, including HIV, and there are robust monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of donors and recipients.
Chamut Kifetew, health equalities lead at Terrence Higgins Trust, a charity that campaigns and provides services relating to HIV and sexual health, said: ‘We called for change and now change is coming.
“This decision means more people, particularly those of African heritage, will be able to safely donate much-needed blood products in England.
“The removal of the question is particularly important as it eliminates one of the key barriers which has until now played a role in preventing the recruitment of more donors from Black communities. This momentum must be maintained as we urgently need more work done to address wider health inequalities faced by Black people in the UK.”
The new changes will be reviewed 12 months following implementation by the FAIR steering group and SaBTO.