British health officials are expected to implement the change in the coming weeks, reversing a decades-long ban that gay rights advocates had decried as discriminatory. They argued that many gay men practice safe sex in monogamous relationships or are abstinent altogether, and thus were being excluded from charity blood drives by a blanket ban solely because of their sexual orientation.
In the United States, any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 is barred from donating blood to the American Red Cross and all other blood drives. Canada has a similar policy.
Under the new U.K. policy, gay men who've been abstinent for 10 years will be allowed to donate blood, but sexually active men will remain barred. Lesbians and heterosexuals have always been allowed to donate blood, provided they meet other requirements regarding vaccinations, travel and other diseases.
The 10-year rule is designed to prevent men who recently contracted the AIDS virus from spreading it to blood donation supplies before they know they're infected. But the abstinence promise is based only on trust, and blood technicians have no way of verifying whether a prospective donor is lying.
In Britain, about a quarter of the country's estimated 85,000 HIV-positive residents are believed to be unaware that they carry the virus. About 42 percent of that total number are gay men, The Telegraph quoted an HIV charity as saying.
All donated blood is screened for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. But British health officials acknowledged that the new policy means the risk of HIV-tainted blood donations supplies will increase by 2.5 percent.
The new British policy was modeled after a similar one in New Zealand, which also allows gay men to donate blood if they've been abstinent for 10 years. South Africa has a five-year limit.