I gave blood for the first time last week through the NHS Blood Services and it was a pretty ok experience. It took an hour or so out of my evening. But I got to sit, child free, and read my book, catch up on social media or just enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. At the end I got crisps, biscuits and a glass of juice. Plus the warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that I had probably helped a life to be saved.
But, the whole process also got me thinking. When blood is in such high demand why are we so strict on who donates? Why can’t everyone be a blood donor?
What are the rules on Giving Blood in the UK?
There are a lot of rules around donating blood that I completely understand. Blood donors have to be fit and healthy, not pregnant, over 7st 12lb and aged between 17 and 66 – or 70 if you have given blood before. Then there are restrictions on how often you can give blood. This is every 12 weeks, or three months, for men and every 16 weeks, or four months, for female donors. This is so your body has enough time to replace the blood that you donated.
But, after that, common sense seems to have been lost somewhere in the mix. The rules around giving blood seem to be outdated at best. For example, you cannot give blood if you have ever received money or drugs for sex.
Now, I’m not condoning exchanging sex for money or drugs. But not allowing people who have done that in the past – however long ago and however many times – is basically saying that they all have diseases.
Which, even the most uneducated person knows isn’t true. They could have practiced safe sex every single time and just found themselves at a low point in their life. Does that rule them out of ever helping to save a life themselves?
You also can’t give blood if you have ever injected, or been injected with, drugs – even if it was a long time ago and even if it only happened once. This includes body-building drugs and injectable tanning agents.
Which again suggests that anyone who has ever come into contact with a needle must either have a disease or some other blood contamination. Some injected drugs are ok if a doctor has prescribed them. But the rule of thumb is if you have injected anything then you can’t, ever, give blood.
Can I give blood if I’ve had IVF?
You can’t give blood if you have received donated eggs or embryos during IVF treatment. But you are allowed to donate if you’ve received donated sperm. You also can’t donate if you have ever had a blood transfusion.
Can gay men donate blood?
It also rules out men who, in the last 12 months have had oral or anal sex with another man. Even if they have used a condom or other protection. I think most people have sex at least once a year and so this rules out pretty much all gay men from ever giving blood. Again this suggests that all gay men have a disease.
You are also ruled out if your partner has ever injected drugs, or ever received money for sex. So, you could be in a relationship with someone who, once, as a young adult, had sex with someone in exchange for drugs.
Because of that you will never be able to give blood – under the current regulations. I could keep going. There are also strict regulations about which countries you’re allowed to have travelled to. And which countries you’re not allowed to have had sex in. Countries with a high HIV rate, regardless of who you had sex with in that country.
Is donated blood screened for diseases?
As all blood donated goes through rigorous testing this seems absolutely ridiculous to me. Yes, all of the groups above are more susceptible to STDs, HIV and other diseases but it doesn’t mean they categorically have them.
The chances are that most of them, who want to donate, don’t have anything nasty in their blood. So surely it is better to let more people donate and then just strike off the ones who turn out to have something unsatisfactory in their system?
When you give blood everything is sanitary, clean and taken straight from protective packets. The nurses wear gloves and there are biohazard bags and buckets for all the waste. There is so much effort that goes into making sure that at no point does any cross contamination happen.
Every blood donation gets sent to the blood centre. This is where the blood is separated into its different components – red blood cells, plasma, or platelets. They are then checked for viruses to help ensure that each donation is safe to transfuse to patients.
Why can’t gay men donate blood?
So with this testing in place why can’t a gay man go and donate? If he doesn’t think he has a disease then surely he should be allowed the opportunity to donate. The opportunity to help someone and the worst case scenario would be that they find out at the testing stage that he does in fact have something wrong with him. It can then get flagged, he can get treatment and he’ll then know not to donate again in the future.
But ruling out people purely on their sexual orientation or decisions they have made in the past as well as people who have had IVF or blood transfusions themselves means that the pool of people able to give blood is getting less and less.
More and more people have IVF or need blood transfusions and as all blood is tested anyway I just can’t understand why such a large cross section of the community can’t be given the chance to donate.
How do blood donation rules vary between countries?
Plus, the rules vary massively from country to country. In Australia you can donate blood 12 months after receiving a blood transfusion. In the United States there is no upper age limit. The question of whether you have had fertility treatment doesn’t even get mentioned.
But also, in both countries, anyone who has spent six months or more in the UK between 1980 and 1996 wouldn’t be allowed to donate. Obviously anyone in the UK over the age of 21 has CJD, more commonly known as Mad Cow Disease, don’t they? Really, why do the regulations vary so much?
Some people have more risk of having a disease. Other people have more risk of being in a road traffic accident if they spend all day in a car. Some have more risk of getting an illness if it’s hereditary and runs in their family. But it doesn’t mean these things will happen. We cannot stop living our lives because of possible outcomes without knowing the facts.
If someone has HIV, Hepatitis or any other blood borne disease they obviously shouldn’t give blood. Until you know that they have a disease, or any other factual reason not to give blood, I think everyone should be treated equally. It may just help to save a life.