The Australian Red Cross blood donation service is a step closer to easing restrictions on gay male donors, but LGBTIQ advocates say the move isn’t enough.
Currently, the Lifeblood donation service refuses male donors who have had sex with men in the past 12 months. This effectively bans gay men from donating blood.
Now the service has announced the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has agreed to reduce that period to three months after an expert review.
The proposal must now go to all Australian governments for final approval, and could potentially begin later in the year.
The service said, “Deferral policies are regularly reviewed and are underpinned by the most up-to-date clinical and scientific evidence, so that Australia maintains one of the safest blood supplies in the world.
“Lifeblood would like to make it easier for all Australians to give blood, while ensuring Australia’s blood and blood products are as safe as possible for recipients.”
In a statement, the Therapeutic Goods Administration explains the donor groups covered by the proposed reduced deferral period.
“Donors currently receiving pre-exposure prophylaxis HIV prevention (PrEP) treatment are outside the scope of this submission,” the TGA said.
“The deferral period for those donors remains unchanged at 12 months post PrEP.
“Donors with new partners from HIV risk areas are also outside the scope of this proposal. The deferral period for those donors remains at 12 months.”
Why PrEP users aren’t included in new blood donation rules
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) CEO Darryl O’Donnell said the reduction of the deferral period is an “important improvement”.
“This decision better aligns Australia’s blood donation policy with scientific evidence,” he said.
“The goal of our policy should be to ensure the safety of the blood supply while encouraging the largest possible pool of donors. The previous 12 month deferral period was excessive.”
O’Donnell also said the new rule doesn’t yet apply to people who take HIV prevention drug pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
“The widespread use of PrEP outside clinical trials is relatively recent,” he said.
“There hasn’t been enough real-world data at this stage to support a shorter deferral period for PrEP users.
“We’re continuing to work closely with Lifeblood on this issue and will advocate for a lower deferral as soon as evidence allows.”
LGBTIQ group says policy should focus on safety of sexual activity
However LGBTIQ group just.equal says the new three-month “celibacy rule” would still leave most gay men unable to donate.
Spokesperson Rodney Croome said the move is “window dressing at best” and the focus should shift to assessing individual risk.
“The new deferral will not significantly increase the amount of safe blood available for transfusion,” he said.
“At a time of crisis when blood shortages are looming, it is vital that all Australians not at risk of passing on blood-borne diseases are able to donate, including those gay men who are not at risk.
“We urge the TGA and the Red Cross Lifeblood service to adopt a new policy of screening all donors for the safety of their sexual activity rather than the gender of their sexual partner.”
Australia banned homosexual men from donating blood following the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The service introduced the current 12 month deferral period in 2000.
“Imposing a celibacy period on all sexually-active gay men before donating blood is a hangover from the 1980s,” Croome said.
“HIV transmission was less well understood, tests for the virus were less reliable and being gay was synonymous with having AIDS.
“Those days are long-gone and our blood screening policy should be updated accordingly.”
US eases gay blood donation restrictions due to COVID-19
The three-month deferral period brings Australia in line with nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
Earlier this month, the United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) eased similar restrictions on gay blood donors in that country.
It reduced the period male donors who have sex with men must abstain from sex from 12 months to three.
The FDA made the change due to “unprecedented challenges to the US blood supply” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canada made the same change to their gay blood donor policy last May, from 12 months to three.
In Australia, experts also warn of looming shortages of donor blood due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many regular donors are currently self-isolating or fearful of coronavirus transmission.
The Lifeblood service’s website also provides advice on eligibility for prospective donors who are lesbian, intersex or transgender.
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