OPINION | Tainted blood: Canada shows the way on gay blood donation

OPINION

The Red Cross has a new rationale for blocking gay blood donation, and it’s just as bad as the rest.

Until recently, Red Cross Lifeblood said no to gay blood donation (and donation by bi men, trans women and some non-binary people who have sex with men) because men who have sex with men (MSM) are more likely to have HIV.

That’s technically right, but it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of MSM don’t and will never have HIV because they practice safe sex or are in monogamous relationships.

In response to criticism, Lifeblood then refined its case saying the problem was new HIV infections that can go undetected for days or weeks.

But the numbers of newly-infected men who might donate is so low as to pose a risk that researchers say is not meaningful.

There were only 332 cases of HIV infection through male-to-male sex in 2021 compared with 148 cases for heterosexual sexual contact

Apply the 3% figure of Australians who donate blood a year to the number of newly infected MSM, then estimate the percentage who will attempt to donate during the window period of infection and who are not detected by advanced screening methods, and you get a number that approaches zero.

The other significant feature of the HIV infection rates is that MSM infections are going down.

This is why countries like the UK, the Netherlands, France, Greece and most recently Canada, have adopted a new policy of assessing the individual risk of all donors, gay and straight, cis and trans.

By asking everyone the same question – have you had anal sex with a new partners or multiple partners in the last three months – these countries are screening out both gay men and straight people who are engaged in risky sexual activity.

But the Red Cross Lifeblood Service says “no” to this as well.

In a recent statement to OUTinPerth, Lifeblood said: “Individual assessment [will] still restrict people from donating blood, including people across the whole population (many who are currently eligible to donate) who have anal sex with a new sexual partner and those who have multiple sexual partners”.

Translation: we are willing to exclude all MSM from blood donation, so we don’t lose any heterosexuals donors who are engaging in risky behaviour.

I understand why an increasing number of gay men are angry about this.

It feels like the Red Cross is telling us our blood is always tainted, no matter our individual circumstances or broader shifts in HIV infection rates.

But there is a far better response to the Red Cross than feelings.

In a study released earlier this year, Canadian researchers found that only 1% of existing heterosexual donors would be turned away under individual risk assessment, a figure almost entirely made up for by new gay donors.

The study was conducted at blood collection points across Canada and informed that country’s adoption of individual risk assessment beginning on September 11th, 2022.

What makes the Canadian study particularly relevant is that Canada’s HIV profile is similar to Australia, especially when it comes to men with HIV.

The Canadian study is a body blow to Lifeblood’s latest rationale for blocking gay blood donation.

The Red Cross Lifeblood Service has a duty to replicate this study and the Federal Government has a duty to fund it.

Just consider what depends on the outcome of such a study: a less discrimination blood supply, a new source of safe blood for those in need, the maintenance of high safety standards.

It would be unethical for Lifeblood and the Government not to undertake such a study with a view to adopting individual risk assessment.

Let Us Give is currently campaigning to have the gay ban lifted and individual risk assessment adopted.

If you want to be part of the Let Us Give campaign

Sign the petition here. Get in touch or send us your personal story here.

Watch the video about Canadian research.

Rodney Croome



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