Gay men hope Red Cross blood donor waiting period will be reduced following latest review
Updated July 04, 2019 11:16:33
Needles have become a fact of life for Ben Henry.
The 26-year-old has an inherited blood condition called haemochromatosis and currently has to draw about half a litre of blood every week to tackle the high iron levels caused by the disorder.
- Australian men are barred from donating blood for one year after a sexual encounter with another man
- The Red Cross Blood Service is considering findings from a review into Australia’s waiting period
- Last time the service suggested a reduction in the waiting time, authorities knocked it back
Many people with the condition donate the blood they are forced to siphon to the Red Cross Blood Service.
But because Mr Henry is gay, his bags of blood are discarded.
“It’s really disheartening,” he said.
“I’ve always wanted to be a donor, but I’m ineligible.”
Homosexual men were banned from donating blood in Australia following the HIV and AIDS crisis that terrified the world in the 1980s.
Today men must wait one year after having sex with another man — including oral sex and anal intercourse with or without a condom — to be eligible to donate.
The blood service says the 12-month deferral period was gradually introduced, starting with South Australia in 1996 and ending with New South Wales in 2000.
The same policy applies to transgender people who have had sex with a man.
Mr Henry said the fact his blood went to waste because he was sexually active was an issue of equality.
“My blood, which is totally healthy, which is perfect for donors, they just don’t want it,” he said.
“‘I want to give back to the community, I want to be a part of society like everyone else.”
Rules from time of ‘fear and prejudice’
The LGBT community has long been pushing for changes to blood donation rules.
“For young gay men that didn’t grow up in the 80s and the 90s when there were concerns about blood safety, I think there is a real sense of surprise that these policies exist,” Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) chief executive Darryl O’Donnell said.
Figures released this week show HIV diagnoses have dropped to an 18-year low, mainly due to decreased cases in gay and bisexual men.
The drop has been partly attributed to the use of HIV prevention drug PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), which was listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme last year.
Blood screening and treatment for HIV and AIDS has undergone a revolution since the dark days of the crisis.
When a blood screening test for HIV first became available in 1985, it could pick up antibodies about 50 days after infection.
Today, detection takes fewer than 10 days, according to John Kaldor, who is a professor at the Kirby Institute medical research centre in Sydney.
“The tests back in the early days detected antibodies which is what the human immune system develops in response to HIV infection,” he said.
“The current tests, the nucleic acid tests which detect the virus itself, or the nucleic acids of the virus, they are able to detect the presence of the virus within several days.”
Australia was a world leader when it introduced the 12-month waiting period, but has now “fallen behind” according to Professor O’Donnell.
Global deferral periods:
- New Zealand: 12 months
- Australia: 12 months
- USA: 12 months
- France: 12 months
- Japan: 6 months
- United Kingdom: 3 months
- Canada: 3 months
- Denmark: 4 months
- Italy, Spain, Portugal and South Africa: no deferral
“Three months [deferral period] is now where many of the blood banks are landing,” he said.
Countries including Italy, Spain, Portugal and South Africa have gone further — scrapping the mandatory deferral period.
In countries with no deferral period, gay and bisexual men are assessed on their individual risk — such as multiple sexual partners — rather than sexual orientation.
Denmark has announced it is scrapping the deferral period for gay men in monogamous relationships and other gay and bisexual men can donate after four months without sex.
The Victorian Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby’s Dale Park said the restrictions were introduced at a time of “fear and prejudice” around homosexuality and the deferral period should be set to three months or less.
“We want a fair and equitable society,” Mr Park said.
Deferral period ‘not discriminatory’
Only one in 30 Australians currently give blood and the Red Cross Blood Service is keen to boost its pool of potential donors.
During this year’s savage cold and flu season, illness among regular donors has forced the service to call out for extra donors.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has previously knocked back a move by the Red Cross to cut the deferral period to six months, following a 2012 review of the rule.
The TGA said that decision was based on expert advice that relaxing the rules “would be unlikely to provide a significant increase in blood supply”.
“Applying a deferral period is not discriminatory as it applies to high risk behaviours and not particular community groups,” the TGA said.
An expert-led review of the waiting period commissioned by the blood service was handed to the organisation late last year but has not been made public.
In addition to the referral period, the review considered whether men could avoid exclusion by regular condom use or taking PrEP.
Red Cross Blood Service chief medical officer Joanne Pink said there was an important balance between boosting donation rates and ensuring the safety of blood recipients.
“I understand that people are really frustrated by this blood safety rule,” Dr Pink said.
“We’re really pleased to be reviewing it again but it’s important we don’t take blood safety for granted.”
The service is yet to respond to the review and a final decision on the waiting period would be up to state and federal health ministers.
For Mr Henry, tired of his potentially life-saving blood going to waste, that decision cannot come soon enough.
First posted July 04, 2019 05:08:27