Andy Clarke: Chance for everyone to give gift of life

TODAY, more people than ever will be able to donate blood following FreedomToDonate's campaign to reduce the deferral period for men who have sex with men.

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In July, the Government announced that it would be reducing the deferral period for gay men and other groups from 12 months to three, a move which represents a world-leading blood donation policy.

I started working on FreedomTo Donate over two years ago. I was interested because, as a straight person who hadn’t donated blood for a while, I was completely unaware of the criteria, some of which didn’t make too much sense for me, particularly those applying to gay men.

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My reason for getting involved quickly became much more personal than wanting an evidence-based policy. A week after I came across FreedomToDonate, my father-in-law, Mick, was in hospital. We weren’t particularly close at the time, mainly because he was from a generation where men didn’t talk about certain things.

But that day in hospital changed everything – he was diagnosed with two types of acute leukaemia and given three months to live. And like that, our family’s life had to change, as did his. He gave up his career as an engineer and my mother-in-law had to become a carer for the husband she had been with for over 25 years.

Mick’s three months came and went after he set a number of goals for himself – first it was making the annual family trip to Whitby Folk Week, then it was Christmas, then my mother-in-law’s birthday and so on. We had to think about whether he would be at our wedding.

Against all odds, he was there and walked his only daughter down the aisle. There is only one reason he was there, apart from his unrivalled sense of stubbornness and intense drug regime. And that is the amazing act of blood donation.

In the week leading up to the wedding, he had multiple pints of blood just to give him enough energy to function for a whole day. There are around 6,000 blood donations needed every day to keep the blood supply up.

On April 13, my father-in-law lost his battle with cancer. But, thanks to the people who go in and donate blood 
every few months, transfusions meant that my wife got to spend two more years with her dad.

The ongoing battle for a Yorkshire devolution bid has exposed feelings about how negotiations about important issues can hit roadblocks. What FreedomToDonate showed, however, was how effective cross-party collaboration can drive real change. We had a great amount of support from Yorkshire MPs Stuart Andrew and Paula Sherriff, who led the all-party group on blood donation, along with Stewart McDonald (SNP, Glasgow South). Their involvement helped to put blood donation on the Government’s agenda.

The criteria around who can donate blood is complex – more important than anything is FreedomToDonate’s guiding principle that those who want to donate blood, and can do so safely, should be able to do so. After the contaminated blood scandal of the 80s, safety is paramount.

Today, new guidelines come into effect, meaning that the UK is leading the way in deferral-based blood donation models. This is not, however, the end goal, and our campaign – and the Government – has a role to play in moving towards a safe and truly fair blood donation policy for all.

We don’t want to stop here – introducing a truly individualised risk-based blood donation policy is something that we look forward to working with the NHS and its partners on. This means that everyone can be assessed according to their risk factor and not heaped into sweeping generalisations around sexuality or whether they have once had sex for money. It means that the blood supply can be on a more secure and sustainable footing.

I’m proud to be one of the four FreedomToDonate volunteers leading a campaign who worked with NHSBT (NHS Blood and Transplant) and the Department of Health alongside full-time jobs. We acknowledge that there is still work to do, but thanks to the immense support we have had, it means that people who find themselves in need of transfusions can go in confident that they will receive what they need.

Please visit www.blood.co.uk to register to donate, or visit your local donor centre.

Andy Clarke is the Head of Parliamentary Engagement for FreedomToDonate - continue the conversation @realdrewclarke