* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Anyone, regardless of their sexuality should be able to donate as long as they are safe to do so
Ethan Spibey is the founder of FreedomToDonate, which campaigns for gay and bisexual men in Britain to be allowed to donate blood
Perhaps one of the few positives from the tumultuous year we’ve experienced has been the surge of civic duty and community spirit that has swept the UK. And nowhere has that sense of pride and community been seen more than in the support for our NHS and key workers.
Yet in amongst this support, a spotlight has been shone on the reality that some of us are able to give more so than others. Through the plasma trials at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital in London, the fact that gay and bisexual men are still in 2020 unable to donate blood has brought fresh attention to my deeply held passion and belief: that anyone, regardless of their sexuality should be able to donate as long as they are safe to do so.
The plasma trials mirror the current blood donation policy, which excludes whole swathes of the population, arguably based on outdated stereotypes and assumptions about gay and bi men. This is in spite of the blood service’s own targets for new male donors, which is up 26% this year alone. Their own head of donor recruitment acknowledged in January that they need more than 68,000 men to start donating blood this year.
Luckily for the blood service, I believe we already have the answer and it lies in treating people as individuals on their unique eligibility to donate, rather than typecasting an entire community.
FreedomToDonate was set up with a singular and simple belief; that those who want to donate, and could do so safely, should be able to do so. For me, it’s to repay a blood donor who saved my grandad’s life. But this is about more than an individual, or even gay and bi men. It’s about the fact that every donation of blood can potentially save up to three lives. By moving to an individualised risk-based policy and assessing individual donor risk, we can unlock the thousands of donors the blood service needs.
And it’s not just the blood services here in the UK that would benefit from unlocking the potential of more safe male donors.
When we worked alongside government and the blood service to introduce the previous policy in relation to gay and bi men, reducing the defferal period, or time an individual has to wait after sex before donating from 12 months down to three, we saw the ripples of that policy change around the world. Since the policy changed here in the UK in 2017, Canada, the United States, France, Denmark and the Netherlands all reduced their deferral periods too.
But now, in 2020, it’s time for change once again. The exclusion of gay and bi men in the plasma trials here in London has highlighted that we are still missing out on the immense potential of gay and bi men who could donate safely.
FreedomToDonate isn’t even advocating for a new model. We already screen potential donors through a questionnaire and all blood is tested and screened before it ever reaches a patient. If we already ask certain questions to potential donors, why not ask a few more to accurately and individually assess their risk and eligibility to donate?
For more than five years, we have campaigned passionately on this topic and have worked extremely closely with the blood service and the government. We are proud to sit on the working group within the Department for Health and Social Care, which is right now considering how our proposals around an individualised risk-based policy could work.
We say the time is now. As a newfound sense of civic duty and community emerges, gay and bi men too could and should be the answer to a fairer, more equal and more sustainable supply of blood for the good of us all.