The Executive has agreed an application by Health Minister, Michelle O’Neill, to take an urgent decision to lift the ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with other men (MSM).
The decision follows an Appeal Court ruling in March which confirmed that this is a devolved matter, and substantial new evidence showing that the risk of contracting HIV from donated blood is lower with a one-year deferral than with a lifetime ban.
Announcing her decision to change to a one-year deferral, Michelle O’Neill said: “My first responsibility in this matter is patient safety. Evidence from across the UK has provided assurance that the risk is lower with a one-year deferral. My decision is based solely on the evidence regarding the safety of donated blood."
The Minister went on to stress the importance of donors’ compliance with the deferral rules: “The safety of donated blood depends on two things: donor selection and the testing of blood. Every blood donation is tested for HIV and a number of other organisms. Not even the most advanced tests are 100% reliable, so it is vitally important for every donor to comply with any deferral rules that apply to them.
“I will instruct the NI Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) accordingly. To allow NIBTS adequate preparation time, the new policy will come into effect on 1st September 2016.”
Notes to editors:
- A lifetime ban on blood donation by men who have had sex with men (MSM) was introduced in the UK and many other countries in the 1980s in response to the emergence of AIDS.
- In May 2011 the UK expert group on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) concluded that the evidence no longer supported a lifetime ban on blood donation by MSM, and in September 2011 the Health Ministers in England, Scotland and Wales adopted a one-year deferral for MSM. The new policy was introduced in November 2011.
- In Northern Ireland the lifetime ban on blood donation by MSM has remained in place.
- The continuation of the lifetime ban in Northern Ireland was challenged in the courts in 2013. The judgment in the judicial review case was delivered in October 2014. The judge ruled, among other findings, that blood donor deferral policy was a matter for the Secretary of State for Health, not the Northern Ireland Health Minister. In March 2016 the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal overturned this ruling and determined that this is a devolved matter.
- Regarding the safety of donated blood for the recipients, the recent evidence in the form of surveillance data from England, Scotland and Wales and a major survey of donors across the UK has confirmed that donated blood is safer with a one-year deferral for MSM than with a lifetime ban.
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