RESTRICTIONS ON blood donations by gay and bisexual men in Ireland are to be changed next year, cutting the time they must abstain from sexual activity before being allowed to donate.
Currently, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service operates a one-year deferral system from last sexual contact with another man, but this is set to be reduced to four months in March 2022.
There was previously a lifelong deferral on men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood, before it was changed to one year in 2017.
The change comes following a report by an independent advisory group established by the IBTS to review such deferrals, while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.
The policy changes, announced today, Wednesday 22 December, will be introduced in two phases with the initial phase introduced by the end of March and the second phase introduced later that year.
The change to a four-month deferral is an interim measure while the IBTS introduces new technology, the Department of Health says, to replace the existing paper health and lifestyle questionnaire (HLQ) with an electronic questionnaire known as the Self-Assessment Health History (SAHH).
Phase two, the introduction of an individual assessment process for donors, will occur later in the year, making blood donation more inclusive.
The deferral of any person who is taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which reduces the risk of transmission of HIV by 99% when used correctly, will also be reduced from 12 months to 4 months and this deferral will remain in place after the introduction of the individual assessment.
Announcing the change in policy, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said:
"I am delighted to welcome this significant move by the IBTS, removing the barriers to blood donation that currently exist for men who have sex with men.
"To be a blood donor is to give a wonderful, life-saving and life-preserving gift to a person in their time of urgent need. I look forward to working with the IBTS to implement and publicise this important step. I would like to thank Professor Horgan for her important work.
Adam Shanley, MPOWER Programme Manager with HIV Ireland said he was delighted to be part of the advisory board that made the recommendation and said the announcement was a "welcome change in achieving a more inclusive approach" to blood donations by MSM.
We’ve long campaigned for a safe, fair & science-based eligibility process so more people can give blood.
Today's announcement by @DonnellyStephen is a welcomed change in achieving a more inclusive approach.@HIVIreland we’ll continue to work with IBTS as they apply changes. 🏳️🌈 pic.twitter.com/lOx47ArHdm
— Adam Shanley (@Adlers1) December 22, 2021
This week, the IBTS announced that it had imported blood from the NHS for the second time this year due to shortages in supply of specific rare blood types in Ireland.
Stephen Field, Medical & Scientific Director at IBTS, said "it has been increasingly difficult to keep the blood supply at the level we need to see us through Christmas and New Year."
"Storm Barra resulted in a number of clinics being cancelled and that cost us approximately 300 donations.
"In recent weeks appointment cancellations and the high level of COVID-19 circulating in the community has made it difficult to fill all of our donation appointments. This means that for the last number of weeks we have been issuing more blood to hospitals than we have been able to collect."
This trend is being encountered by most blood services internationally, he said.
Stocks of the main Rh negative blood groups are under particular pressure, especially O negative which is considered the universal blood group and is always in demand.
"It has been a very tough couple of years for everyone but as hospital demand remains strong right up to Christmas, the demand for blood is as great as ever and we are urging donors to make an appointment to give blood. If you receive a text message from us, please respond to the number provided to make an appointment," he added.