Gay man calls for reform of Australia’s ‘outdated’ blood donation policy

Ben Dudman
Photo: Supplied

A gay Tasmanian man has written to three federal political leaders ahead of the federal election to call for changes to Australia’s blood donation policy, which effectively bans gay men from giving blood.

Currently, Australian gay or bisexual men can only donate blood if they have not had male-to-male sex – including with a condom – within the last 12 months.

Wishing to donate blood over summer, Ben Dudman (pictured) said he was “horrified” to discover the deferral period for men who have sex with men through the eligibility quiz on the Red Cross Blood Service’s website.

He said he believes the current policy is outdated, fosters stigma against gay men and unnecessarily limits the supply of donated blood.

“It is absurd that I can’t give blood despite practising safe sex, whereas heterosexual people who don’t have safe sex can donate,” he said.

“The current policy of excluding all sexually-active gay men from blood donation limits the amount of safe blood available to those in need, and stigmatises gay men as a threat to public health.

“The current exclusion is a throwback to a time almost forty years ago when HIV was much less well understood, and myths about gay men all being promiscuous and irresponsible were more widely held.

“Since then blood testing has improved immensely, rates of HIV infection among gay man have decreased, and Australians have shown they support inclusion and equality for LGBTIQ+ people.”

Dudman said it was time for a new blood donation policy that “screens potential donors for the safety of the sexual activity, not the gender of their sexual partners.”

“I have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, [Labor leader] Bill Shorten, and [Greens leader] Richard Di Natale calling on all three major parties to commit to a policy review in this area prior to the next federal election,” he said.

Last October, experts from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) said the 12 month deferral period for sexually active gay men is “unreasonable”.

“Blood is tested for all of the relevant viruses — both the presence of the virus as well as the presence of antibodies,” AFAO’s then president Bridget Haire 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 states 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.”

In 2012, an expert committee advised the Australian Red Cross Blood Service that sexual activity-based donation deferrals could be safely reduced from 12 months to six months.

But 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 supplies.

In 2017, a new expert committee was established to look at the issue and it handed its report to the Blood Service in November.

“Blood Service 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 supplies of blood in the world,” the Blood Service said in an update in November.

“The Blood Service has received the external committee’s report. Our medical experts are considering the advice of the committee along with international and local evidence, which will inform the usual in-depth clinical risk assessment and broader review.

“The Blood Service will then consider a number of potential options regarding sexual activity deferrals, ahead of a submission to the Australian regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, for its consideration. Any future policy decisions will be a matter for governments.

“The Blood Service 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 blood recipients.”

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