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England to remove another ‘discriminatory’ barrier to blood donation

By Sarah Dean

England is set to remove an “outdated, unnecessary and actively discriminatory” question from blood donor forms, which campaigners say has predominantly affected Black communities’ ability to give blood.

It comes after UK-wide changes in June made it easier for sexually active gay and bisexual men to give blood — overturning a ban that originated during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and had been decried as homophobic for years.

By the end of this year, potential donors will no longer be asked if they have recently had sex with a partner who may ever have been sexually active “in parts of the world where HIV/AIDS is very common”, which includes most of sub-Saharan Africa.

Currently those who answer “yes” are deferred for three months after the last sexual contact with that partner.

“In practical terms, this current rule in England means that someone who is in a long-term, monogamous relationship with someone from or who has ever lived in Africa would most probably be unable to donate blood,” British lawmakers Taiwo Owatemi, MP for Coventry North West, and Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North, wrote in a letter to Health Secretary Sajid Javid last month.

Owatemi and Owen’s letter, published on the website for British HIV and sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, said the question acted “as a significant barrier for many people who may wish to donate blood, and this comes at the expense of the NHS [National Health Service] Blood and Transplant’s current push to get more Black people to give blood.”

The NHS website says: “At the moment we need Black donors because of a rise in demand for some rare blood types that are more common in people of Black heritage.”

“People who are Black African, Black Caribbean and of Black mixed ethnicity are more likely to have the rare blood sub-group, such as Ro, that many Black sickle cell patients need. This change will provide more opportunities for people to donate for the ongoing need for rarer blood types,” the UK’s Department of Health said in a news release.

The health department said that the question will be removed from the donor safety check in England following research by the Fair (For the Assessment of Individualised Risk) steering group and supported by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (Sabto).

The question has already been removed in the devolved nations of Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland has not announced a change.

National AIDS Trust chief executive Deborah Gold said in a statement: “We are delighted that the Secretary of State has confirmed this outdated, unnecessary and actively discriminatory question will be removed from blood donor screening forms.

“The science is clear that this is unnecessary and does nothing to improve safety. Instead, it actively prevents much needed donors coming forward to give blood, particularly from Black communities. The change is long overdue, and we warmly welcome today’s announcement.”

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid called it “another progressive step forward, focusing on individual behaviours, rather than blanket deferrals, and reducing limitations for people to donate blood.”

“This will make it easier for Black donors in particular to donate blood, ultimately saving lives,” Javid said.

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