Ministers will remove questions on sexual activity in sub-Saharan Africa for blood donations to encourage more donors in England after a long campaign to widen the criteria.
MPs and activists have said the existing guidelines were discriminatory and have no scientific basis. Blood donation rules include a three-month restriction on donating for anyone in England who has 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”.
The question – part of the pre-donation safety check – means that many black African donors and other potential donors in long-term relationships have been unable to donate blood.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said he would remove the question after extensive government research. The change has been widely welcomed as removing a discriminatory barrier. People who are black or have mixed ethnicity are also more likely to have a rare blood subgroup that many black sickle-cell patients need, such as Ro.
Other questions do remain, although the government recently lifted the ban on gay men donating blood after a long campaign. People who have recently travelled to countries where HIV is endemic will still be asked to defer their donations.
Javid called it a “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.”
Black people are 10 times more likely than white people to have the Ro and B positive blood types needed to treat the 15,000 people in the UK suffering from the blood disorder sickle cell.
The change was recommended by the for assessment of individualised risk (Fair) steering group, which includes experts in the UK blood services and LGBTQ+ charities.
Blood donations are tested for a multitude of possible infections, including HIV, and it is estimated that the risk of an HIV-infectious donation not being detected is one in 23m.
Su Brailsford, associate medical director at NHS Blood and Transplant and chair of Fair, said the UK had “one of the safest blood supplies in the world”.
“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,” she said.
“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.”
Chamut Kifetew, the health equalities lead at Terrence Higgins Trust, said the question had long been a barrier to the recruitment of more donors from black communities. “Now we need to see the work done to address wider health inequalities faced by black people in the UK,” she said.