Health officials start work on 'gay blood' policy change

By Peter Coulter

Image source, SPL

"Preparatory work" is to begin at Northern Ireland's Department of Health to reduce the deferral period for gay men to donate blood.

But a final decision on reducing the time will need to be taken by a Stormont minister.

The Westminster government has announced its intention to reduce the deferral based on scientific evidence.

Men who have sex with men will be able to give blood three months after their last sexual activity instead of 12.

That will only apply in England and Scotland, though, as health is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland and a change will require approval from a health minister.

Northern Ireland is without a health minister and a devolved government after its power-sharing executive collapsed in January.

Donation policy challenged

In June 2016 the former health minister Michelle O'Neill lifted the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood and adopted the 12-month rule.

Previous health ministers, including Edwin Poots and Jim Wells of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), kept the ban in place.

A BBC investigation had found that the Department of Health did not have any medical evidence of its own to support a permanent ban on gay men donating blood.

The policy was subject to a number of court challenges.

Experts have now said that the move to reduce the deferral period would give more people the opportunity to donate blood without affecting blood supply safety.

The Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO), which advises UK health departments, recommended the changes after concluding that new testing systems were accurate and donors were good at complying with the rules.

All blood that is donated in the UK undergoes a mandatory test for Hepatitis B and C, and HIV, plus a couple of other viruses.

Scientists agree that three months is a comfortably long window for a virus or infection to appear and be picked up in the blood.

'Guided by science'

Stormont's Department of Health said is was "aware of the recommendations" by SaBTO.

"The department... is aware of the intention to introduce some of the recommended changes in England in early 2018," a spokesman added.

"The department will be guided in this matter by the scientific evidence and is taking forward the necessary preparatory work on that basis."

Gay rights campaigner John O'Doherty, of the Rainbow Project group, said he wants to see the rule change in England and Scotland replicated in Northern Ireland.

"The group of people who are undergoing that [12-month] deferral is limited to men who have sex with men," he told BBC Radio Ulster's The Sunday News programme.

"It doesn't reflect the sex that they're choosing to have, who they're choosing to have sex with, or how many people they're choosing to have sex with.

"It is wholly based on the fact that they are having sex with other men and I believe that is wrong."

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