Experts have called for an easing of Australia’s blood donation policy, which effectively bans gay men from donating blood.
Australia has a 12-month deferral period on donating blood for men who have sex with another man in the last 12 months.
But experts from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) say scientific advancements mean that period is “unreasonable” and can be reduced, allowing gay donors to help the Red Cross Blood Service meet periodic supply shortages.
“Australia doesn’t want to change its really high rate of success in terms of blood supply safety, but it still needs to be responsive to the scientific evidence we have,” AFAO President Bridget Haire told News.com.au.
“The fact is 12 months is just way too long. It’s unreasonable and unnecessary, and it’s deeply unfair — the science tells us that.
“If you’re asked to accept something that introduces some level of discrimination between people, you can kind of accept it if it’s necessary. But if it’s unnecessary, it’s wrong.”
Australia has not had a case of blood supply contamination since 1999, when the blood of a donor who unknowingly had HIV was used in a transfusion and infected the person who received it.
It prompted the introduction of a host of new testing practices, which likely would have prevented the donor’s blood from being used, Ms Haire said.
“We have really good testing of blood being done now. Blood is tested for all of the relevant viruses — both the presence of the virus as well as the presence of antibodies,” she said.
“Even if you look at the test that takes the longest period of time to conduct, it’s one month. If you double it as a kind of buffer for peace of mind, that’s two months.
“The question is, why aren’t we lowering the 12-month exclusion to two months? That is very reasonable. It is safe and perfectly scientifically relevant.”
The Australian Red Cross Blood Service explains on its website, “Scientific modelling shows that overall, even men in a declared exclusive gay relationship have, on average, a 50 times greater risk of HIV infection, compared to heterosexual Australians with a new sexual partner.
“The Blood Service is not discriminating against anyone based on their sexuality; rather the policies are based on assessment of risk.
“Deferrals are in place for a number of potential donors who may be more likely to be exposed to infection or present other risks to the recipient.”
But recent data from the Kirby Institute found new HIV cases are on the decline in gay men but on the increase in heterosexual men.
“It shows that the kind of screening that happens in blood banks needs to be more vigilant to people who don’t belong to the [homosexual] population,” Ms Haire said.
“Screening should be appropriate for the risks that need to be there.”
In 2012, an expert committee advised the Australian Red Cross Blood Service that sexual activity-based donation deferrals, which also apply to sex workers and some others, could be safely reduced from 12 months to six months.
Two years later, the Therapeutic Goods Administration rejected that recommendation, arguing the reduction could increase the risk of HIV being passed on to a blood recipient with no significant boost to the blood supply.
Another review is currently underway and the findings are expected to be released before the end of the year.
LGBTIQ rights campaigner Rodney Croome said the “blanket ban” on gay blood donation was based on prejudice and could be eased without increasing risk.
“Evidence presented in a landmark case against the ban, taken several years ago by Tasmanian gay man Michael Cain, showed that there are gay men who have a lower risk of HIV than many of the heterosexual people who can currently donate,” he said.