LGBTIQ advocates have urged Australian blood donation authorities to follow the UK and safely ease restrictions on gay, bi and trans blood donors.
This week, the UK announced a major reform of its blood donation policy for men who have sex with men.
An expert advisory committee recommended all UK donors be assessed for individual risk, rather than a blanket exclusion if they are gay and sexually active.
Under the UK’s new policy from mid-2021, donors in a monogamous relationship for three months or more can donate.
Instead, restrictions will apply to behaviours deemed higher risk, including sex with multiple partners, anal sex, or drug use.
The new UK rules will also apply to heterosexual men and women, in a “more individualised, risk-based approach”.
What are the current rules for gay blood donors in Australia?
Currently in Australia, the Lifeblood donation service excludes gay, bisexual male and transgender female blood donors who have had sex with men in the past 12 months.
However Lifeblood announced in October these restrictions would ease.
After a review, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved Lifeblood’s proposal to drop that celibacy period to three months since last sexual contact.
Australian governments have all approved the change. It will come into effect on January 31, 2021.
“We’re now in the process of updating our systems, including the donor questionnaire form,” Lifeblood explains on its website.
“[These changes] must be made in conjunction with state and territory governments who regulate it.
“At Lifeblood we’re continuing our focus to make it easier for all Australians to give blood, while always ensuring Australia’s blood and blood products are as safe as possible for blood recipients.”
Australia should adopt UK approach
However just.equal spokesperson Rodney Croome says the three-month celibacy period still excludes most gay men and can safely go further.
He has long campaigned for individual risk assessment for all donors, and wants Australia to adopt the UK’s approach.
He praised the UK’s new policy as allowing a “safer, more plentiful and less discriminatory” blood supply.
“We call on Australian blood collection authorities to move to a new policy of individual screening,” he said.
“The science is clear that screening donors on the basis of the safety of their sexual activity rather than the gender of their sexual partner will increase the safety of the blood supply and ensure more blood is collected.”
Croome said just.equal has written to all of Australia’s health ministers on the issue.
“The ban on gay donors, and some bi and trans donors, stigmatises us as a threat to public health,” he said.
“[It also] reduces the amount of safe blood available for those in need.
“The ban also fosters the false impression that all heterosexual people are safe to donate even when their sexual activity is not safe.”
Croome said Australia’s last case of HIV transmission through transfusion was traced back to a heterosexual woman who was not aware she was at risk.
Earlier this year, all Australian health ministers ratified the proposal to drop the twelve-month celibacy period to three.
Croome said he was disappointed none raised individual risk assessment as an option.
“We urge federal, state and territory leaders to seize the opportunity offered by blood equality in the UK,” he said.
“Bring Australia’s irrational, outdated and stigmatising gay, bi and trans blood ban to an end.”
Majority of gay men would donate blood if allowed
This week, Greens Senator Janet Rice also wrote to Australia’s health ministers and the TGA on the issue.
She welcomed the approval of the new three-month rule but said “more must be done”.
Rice called for evaluation of donors on the safety of their sexual activity, not the gender of their sexual partner.
“Failing that, I ask that you undertake an investigation to examine the evidence and these new international standards, to see how Australia’s framework can be improved,” she wrote.
On Monday, New Zealand also dropped its 12-month celibacy period for men who have sex with men to three.
The US made the same change in April, but experts there also called for the change to go further.
Australia enacted its 12-month celibacy period for men who have sex with men in 2000. Before then, they couldn’t donate blood at all in the wake of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
But experts argue huge strides in HIV screening now allow authorities to safely reduce deferral periods.
Earlier this year, a study found 78 per cent of sexually active gay and bi Australian men would donate blood if allowed.
However, they don’t, in order to comply with the current 12-month restriction.
Lifeblood explains one in three Australians will need blood or blood products in their lifetime. One blood donation can save up to three lives.