The NHS are calling for more male blood donors

By Joe Buncle |

The NHS has recently launched a campaign to encourage more men to give blood. In 2019, 74,645 new donors were female, while 51,999 were male, with the gap being most evident in people aged 17-34. The campaign is intended to address this “serious gender imbalance.” The goal is to recruit 68,000 men as first-time donors in 2020, a 26% increase compared to last year’s target.

Sam’s blood type makes him a ‘universal donor’ | William Dax

19-year-old Sam Chambers has given blood twice since becoming a donor. The Falmouth English student first registered as a donor soon after his 17th birthday. He said: “I read an article by somebody who had given blood, which was quite interesting, and I thought, ‘why haven’t I ever done it?’ I feel that it’s a good and altruistic thing to do, and you get a biscuit at the end.”

Reports show that half as many men than women give blood, despite male blood having unique and valuable properties. Among other factors, male blood contains higher iron levels, and is more likely to be compatible for transfusions.

Sam felt particularly obligated to become a donor after finding out he has O negative blood. O negative blood is universally compatible for transfusions and is therefore extremely useful to the NHS. It is found in roughly one in seven people.

Sam described the experience of donating as “okay” but was surprised by how long it took. Sam explained: “I was a little bit nervous, not so much that it would hurt, but it’s a weird situation. You’re put on these big first-class looking airline seats and they plug you into the machine that takes your blood, so it looked a bit daunting, but it didn’t hurt, and the nurses were really friendly. I was given a long questionnaire to fill out with a lot of questions about drugs, sex life and countries I’ve travelled to. Also, you have to wait at least a couple of months between each donation.”

Sam plans to keep donating and would like to encourage others who are able to. He said: ”It’s a good act to do and you also get a text a few days later saying where your blood has been used. You get a bit of a glow when you get that.”

One factor which may account for the gender disparity is that “men who have sex with men” face certain restrictions as donors. The NHS blood donation website states that “all men must wait 3 months after having oral or anal sex with another man before donating.” The policy has led to some gay and bisexual men to refrain from becoming donors.

Léon Perry, 23, studies Fine Art at Falmouth University and is one of many men who feel that they are being wrongfully prevented from giving blood. He said: “I’ve always wanted to [give blood] since I was 10 years old. It always felt like this natural thing, but then I found out over time that gay people and bisexual people can’t give blood.”

Léon would like to see the current regulations change | Léon Perry

The current NHS regulations stipulate that “Gay and bisexual men are not automatically prevented from giving blood. This rule applies to every man, regardless of their sexual orientation, whether they’re in a stable relationship or whether they use protection such as condoms or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).”

In response to the three-month rule, Leon questioned whether the NHS would say that to a straight person: “The whole thing about, you’re not allowed to sleep with someone for 3 months, it’s absurd. Ask a straight person to do that and see what they say.”

Léon finds such restrictions as frustrating, especially when “In my experience, the gay community are possibly some of the cleanest people, we go to the clinic like every three months. We as a community are so educated because it’s been drilled into our heads.” He finished by adding, “We are supposed to be living in an equal world.”

Dr Su Brailsford, Consultant in Epidemiology and Health Protection for NHS Blood and Transplant, told the Anchor: “We appreciate that any deferral is disappointing if you want to save lives by giving blood. The Government has set the three-month deferral based on expert advice from a Department of Health and Social Care expert committee. We want to give as many people as possible the opportunity to donate whilst continuing to ensure the safety of patients remains our number one priority.”

Su added that, “We recognise that people want to be considered as individuals as much as possible. We are already working collaboratively with LGBT+ groups on blood donation, through the FAIR steering group. The FAIR group is using an evidence-based approach to explore if a more individualised blood donation risk assessment can be safely and practically introduced, while ensuring the safe supply of blood to patients.”

Mathew Slack, pictured with his NHS blood donor card | Joe Buncle

Mathew Slack, a 19-year-old History student, also registered at 17: “It was the first thing I wanted to do when I turned seventeen. I figured, I’ve got healthy blood, and there are people out there who are in need.”

However, he was put off the experience after his first attempt was unsuccessful. “The needle went in, but the blood didn’t go up the tube”, he explained. “It was enough to put me off for two years. I came out feeling disappointed in myself, even though it wasn’t my fault.”

Mathew has since successfully given blood and has scheduled his next appointment for February. When reflecting on his experience he said, “I was a bit nervous going in because of the bad experience I had before but it was so easy. To have the opportunity to give blood and not take that is quite selfish in my opinion. I understand the fear of needles and stuff like that but compared to the fear of someone who has a rare blood condition and could die within six months, to sit for five minutes and give blood to help them seems like no questions asked to be honest.”

Issy plans to donate for the first time later this year | Issy Eastick

Although the campaign primarily targets men, donors from all demographics are always needed. Falmouth Fine Art student Issy Eastick became a blood donor last year, after getting over her fear of needles. Issy said: “I’ve always had a really bad phobia of needles. Earlier in the year I had a treatment for something unrelated which required a lot of injections, so it was first time I felt comfortable enough to give blood.”

Although Issy is a registered donor, she has not yet been able to donate. She continued: 

“The issue I had was, I booked an appointment to donate blood and I didn’t realise that because of my age I had to be a particular weight, so I was turned away in the end and now have to wait until I’m twenty-one. That’s something I would have liked to know more about before, as I have always been a little bit underweight.”  

Issy, who is 20 years old, plans to donate later this year. She added: “It would be good to find someone who has done it before to get rid of the mystery surrounding it. If I’d had more people around that I could ask questions then I think I would have been more encouraged to go ahead with it.”

Alongside its male focused effort, the NHS are also looking to encourage more black donors with the #Represent campaign. The website states: “40,000 more black donors of all blood groups are needed to meet growing demand for better-matched blood and a special subtype of blood which is more common in black people.”