More information about donating blood if you have lived in the UK

What's your policy for people who have lived in the United Kingdom (UK)?

We currently can’t take blood donations from people who lived in the UK for six months or more from 1 January 1980 to 31 December 1996. The UK refers to England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and the Falkland Islands.

Why?

For several years from the late 1980s there was a large outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, also known as ‘mad cow disease’) among cattle in Europe. Most cases were reported in the UK, where there were almost 1,000 new cases per week at the height of the epidemic in January 1993.

The UK has the highest number of confirmed cases of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a disease which is thought to be caused by eating products from cows infected with BSE. A small number of people also contracted vCJD through blood transfusions, which is why we can’t take blood donations from anyone who has received a transfusion in the UK since 1980.

Did the disease affect cattle here in Australia?

No, Australia wasn't affected by BSE and remains BSE free.

What is vCJD?

vCJD is a fatal disease that affects the brain. It has a long incubation period and some people who become infected may not show symptoms for 10 years or more.

Is vCJD a virus?

vCJD isn’t caused by a virus or bacteria. It’s caused by an abnormally-shaped form of a naturally occurring protein (called a ‘prion’) found in the human body. When they infect a healthy person, the abnormally-shaped prions convert normal proteins to dangerous prions.

Why don't you test for vCJD?

There isn’t a suitable screening test for blood donors. Because vCJD can be transmitted by blood transfusion, we use this policy to help us reduce the risk of patients getting this fatal disease from a transfusion.

Why is the time for living in the UK set at six months or more?

This is based on our own research that showed that six months would be enough to reduce the risk without threatening our blood supply. The Australian policy is less strict than most international policies, but similar to other countries like New Zealand, Switzerland, Thailand, Netherlands and Belgium.

Why doesn't the UK have this rule?

The UK’s National Blood Service doesn’t have this particular rule because if they stopped everyone who was a resident during this time from donating blood, there would be dangerously few people left in the UK who could donate. The lack of donated blood would be more dangerous for patients there than the chance of contracting vCJD.

This means UK residents have been able to donate blood to maintain the country’s supply of red blood cells, clinical plasma and platelets. However, the UK does import all plasma for products such as albumin, coagulation factors and immunoglobulins

My mother was pregnant with me when she was in the UK but left soon after I was born. Does the time she was pregnant count towards time spent in the UK?

No, if you left the UK before you were 6 months old and you meet our other eligibility criteria, you should still be able to donate.

I’m a vegetarian – how does this affect me?

The policy still applies. This is because animal products can be present in some apparently vegetarian foods, like:

  • gelatin (made from animal bone marrow) which is found in lollies, jelly, icing and glazes
  • jams, yoghurt, cream cheese and margarine
  • fat-reduced foods
  • many wines, beer and juices
  • shortening for baked goods
  • rennet in cheese
  • some refined sugar, and
  • some medicines.

I’m a vegan and don't eat any animal products, so why can’t I donate?

Similar to the situation with vegetarians, foods sold as vegan may have been contaminated with animal products during this time. We know you pay close attention to what you eat, but for the safety of Australia’s patients we apply this policy to anyone that lived in the UK between 1980 and 1996.

I’m perfectly healthy and haven’t lived in the UK for 20 years or more – why can’t I donate?

While it is true that the cases of vCJD reported to date have had a shorter incubation period (10-15 years) compared to classical CJD, the other form of the disease, there's a theoretical possibility of a ‘second wave’ of vCJD cases. This may happen in people who are less genetically susceptible to it, meaning the disease may have a longer incubation period.

Why can I donate organs but not blood?

Very few people donate organs, and because the patients who need them are likely to die without the transplant, the level of risk compared to the potential benefit to the patient is assessed differently.

Are you likely to change the deferral?

We'll consider changing the deferral if there's strong medical evidence that it's no longer needed.

Also, while there are certain tests that have the potential to detect the disease, they're not suitable for blood donor screening. If we are ever able to change this policy it'll be a nationwide celebration. You'll definitely hear about it!

Why don’t you separate blood stocks from donors who are not eligible to donate under this policy and give to patients who have lived in UK?

We've considered this, but the logistics and costs involved mean we can't justify it with the limited resources that we have. On top of that, there are ethical and regulatory issues with collecting and transfusing blood from donors who are at risk of vCJD when alternatives are available for those vulnerable patients.

I really want to help! What else can I do?

Your passion can still help save lives. You can:

  • Spread the word about blood donation on social media using @redcrossbloodau
  • Register to be an organ donor - there are no restrictions on UK residents for organ donation!
  • Volunteer for the Australian Red Cross
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