Recently on June 17, thousands around Australia marked World Blood Donor Day by donating blood — but men who have sex with men were barred from it as usual. Rob Stott explains why the Red Cross is not to blame for this, and the positive changes that we could expect in the coming months.
THE Red Cross, as always, needs more blood, but it can’t take it from you or me.
Recently, I had the chance to write about this issue for News.com.au and the response was overwhelming. The issue has garnered more coverage on television and radio than ever before.
Now is the chance to have our voices heard and make it clear that allowing gay men to donate would benefit the blood service, not harm it.
But first we need to clear up a few misconceptions.
Importantly, the ban is not technically on gay men — it’s on any man who has had sex with a man in the last 12 months. (Sounds pretty gay to me.)
So, if you’re having a bit of a dry spell, head down to your nearest blood centre and donate. In the colder months, The Red Cross could really use a hand.
The 12-month window is a very conservative estimate of the length of time it’s believed a person may be infected with HIV before the virus shows up in test results. As any GP or sexual health clinic will tell you, the actual window is less than three months thanks to a new generation of testing technology.
Second, a lot of anger gets directed at The Red Cross for not allowing us to donate — but they’re not to blame.
Understandably, when a queer man goes to donate and is turned away by The Red Cross he gets angry, but they’re actually on our side on this. In May, The Red Cross even announced a campaign celebrating its LGBTI workers.
Blood Service chief executive Jennifer Williams said she wanted to change people’s perceptions of The Red Cross: “The Blood Service sometimes attracts criticism for blood donation deferrals regarding sexual activity, but this has nothing to do with our view of LGBTI people.
“Ultimately, it is our aim is to ensure that everyone is treated with respect at the Blood Service because it is part of our values and that everyone understands and celebrates diversity in whatever form it presents itself.”
The responsibility for blood donation rules rests with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and they’ve got a pretty high bar for changing the way things are done.
Last year, The Red Cross teamed with The Kirby Institute and a bunch of other organisations devoted to stopping the spread of HIV and asked the TGA to lower the window to six months.
Despite a lot of effort and some pretty sound science going in to the submission, the TGA rejected it with little explanation.
A spokesman for The Red Cross told me the organisation still believed in lowering the window to six months, which would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Professor David Cooper, head of The Kirby Institute and one of Australia’s leading experts on HIV, says even six months is a longer wait than necessary for gay men.
“It’s definitely over the top,” he said.
“With fourth generation testing we’ve got a much shorter window of just a few weeks now… The window could definitely be lowered.”
Rob Lake, executive director of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, agrees.
“We were very disappointed by the TGA’s decision. We thought it really didn’t reflect a very good scientific analysis. I think it reflected a very conservative assessment,” he told me.
“Increasingly we see better screening technology being used. The risk balance is set too sharply.”
The good news is change is already happening. For example, South Africa’s blood service recently lifted its blanket ban on gay men donating, choosing instead to favour anyone in a stable, monogamous relationship.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction, and the world will be watching to see how the new policy unfolds.
More good news — we get to have another crack.
People close to the process have told me they planned to return to the TGA and ask for the window to be lowered to six months.
This could happen after this year’s International AIDS conference which takes place in Melbourne in July.
When the time comes, we’ll all be able to make submissions to the review committee, explaining why a blanket ban on men who have sex with men is hurting, not helping, Australia’s blood supply.
The best thing we can do as a community is keep talking about it. The Red Cross is on a long journey when it comes to dealing with the LGBTI community, but they’re taking important steps.
The coming months will see the beginning of an important dialogue between The Red Cross, LGBTI advocates and health authorities, and we’ll all get a chance to have our say.
It will be a long, hard slog, but the tide is turning on this issue and 2014 promises to be an exciting year in which we finally have our voices heard and eventually, are treated as equals.