A ban preventing gay and bisexual men from donating blood is “discriminatory” and having a huge impact on critically low blood supplies, says a gay rights spokesperson.
The comments come as incoming Greens Senator Robert Simms delivered his maiden speech on Tuesday, promising young LGBTI Australians that the future would be “easier” by firstly reducing the 12-month ban on gay blood donors to six months.
According to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, any man who has had sexual contact with another man in the past 12 months is forbidden from donating blood – which potentially places a life ban on most gay men.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) stuck to its guns on the policy in 2014 when it rejected a request by the blood service and The Kirby Institute to reduce the deferral period to six months.
Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Sean Mulcahy urged the TGA to revisit the policy, which he said stigmatised gay and bisexual men as a “threat to public health”.
“The ban robs the Australian public of a significant pool of potential blood donors in a time where we know that blood supplies are critically low,” he told The New Daily.
“For us this is a human rights issue and we believe that the ban [is] discriminatory and at odds with safe sex messages. lt also sends out an incorrect and irresponsible public health message, by suggesting that all gay sex is a health risk … while all heterosexual sex is safe.”
Mr Simms urged the TGA to again review the issue due to emerging technologies in blood testing, and wrote a letter to human rights commissioner Tim Wilson asking him to investigate the policy.
“There is a sub-group of men who have sex with men who are at low risk of infection, such as those in monogamous relationships,” Mr Simms said in the letter.
“Making definitive statements about a partner’s sexual behaviour is a limiting factor for all potential blood donors and the information they provide is not always accurate; consequently there is an unknown risk of HIV associated with all sexual partners.”
The incoming Senator is now one of four openly LGB members of the Australian parliament, including Labor senator Penny Wong, Liberal senator Dean Smith and Greens senator Janet Rice.
In response to the letter, Mr Wilson told BuzzFeed that “any decisions should be based on sound science”.
Medical blood safety analyst Hung Yang told The New Daily that the safety of the blood recipient was priority – because they didn’t have a say while in a life-threatening situation and requiring a blood transfusion.
Mr Hung said people presenting to donate blood had to fill out a questionnaire which would capture people at risk of having HIV or other infections.
He rejected Mr Simms’ comments that monogamous male couples would be “less risky” because a questionnaire filled out prior to donating was a “legal declaration” about the person donating blood, and did not ask about their partner’s history or current sexual behaviour.
Mr Hung also said new rapid testing methods for HIV were available to patients who wanted a quick turnaround of results, but was not applicable to those in a risk category of having HIV and wanting to donate blood.
He said the second arm of protection in the blood donor process was mandatory testing of every blood donation.
Campaign for change continues
A Red Cross Blood Service spokesman told The New Daily that in 2011, the blood service established an expert review committee to examine new scientific evidence and international best practice in the rules for sexual-activity-based blood donor deferrals.
That committee – including Australia’s peak HIV/AIDS research group The Kirby Institute (TKI) and the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) – sent a request the TGA to lower the deferral period from 12 months to six months.
Confident there would be no increased risk to public safety, the blood service applied to the TGA to reduce the donor deferral period by six months.
The spokesman said the TGA refused the request noting that reducing the deferral could increase the risk of an infection being passed on to a blood recipient with no significant boost to donor numbers, or to the blood supply.
A joint report by The Kirby Institute and the blood service revealed an increase of male-to-male transmission of HIV in Australia in 2013.
Australian Red Cross Blood Service chief executive Jennifer Williams said after the TGA’s decision was handed down that the blood service accepted the its decision but was “disappointed”.
She said the blood service would carry out another review of the issue in about five years or earlier, if there was a significant change to the factors that “impinge on this subject”.