Medical innovations, coupled with an ageing population, have led to an ever-increasing need for blood. Especially at the moment, during the winter months, as regular donors succumb to illnesses and are unable to donate, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service needs an increased number of donors. So if you can donate, you really should.
But there are still a lot of healthy and willing donors being turned away based on their sexual orientation. In Australia, a man is not allowed to donate blood in the twelve months after having sexual contact with a man. This effectively places a ban on most gay and bisexual men. It also extends to a woman who has had a sexual encounter with a man who has previously had a sexual encounter with another man. These measures are supposed to reduce the risk of HIV infection.
At the very least, the deferral period in which a patient cannot donate blood should be in line with the risk period for HIV detection.
The 12 month deferral period is longer than the risk period, which is where the policy becomes discriminatory. Technological advances in blood screening have led scientists from the BC Centre for Disease Control to conclude that HIV can be detected in over 95% of individuals 4 to 6 weeks after infection, or in over 99% of individuals by 3 months after infection. When your blood is donated, it is tested for five infectious diseases anyway – one of which is HIV.
This makes the 12 month deferral period discriminatory.
In 2012 the Australian Red Cross itself recommended that the deferral period be reduced to 6 months. This recommendation was backed by the Kirby Institute, Australia’s peak HIV research body. However, this submission was rejected by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the federal body responsible for regulating these types of blood donation policies. In a recent e-mail from the TGA, they push that “current blood donor deferrals refer to high-risk behaviours and not particular community groups”.
If this were truly the case, surely donors would be screened on the safety of their sexual activity and not the gender of their partners. Surely, two men in a monogamous, long-term relationship are less likely to infect Australia’s blood supply than people who have a new sexual partner every weekend.
And we have proof that actually screening donors on their sexual activity rather than sexual orientation can work! Argentina, Chile, Italy, France, Spain and Portugal are just a few of the countries which have embraced individual sexual risk assessments. None of these countries are yet to report increased risk in the safety of their blood supply, and the continued international shift towards this policy demonstrates that individual sexual risk assessments are working.
The exclusion of men who have sex with men from donating blood is an outdated policy and is ethically and scientifically unjustifiable in the world we live in today. Australia needs to embrace a safe, caring and inclusive national blood system and overhaul this discriminatory policy.