A review of Australia’s blood donation guidelines has recommended that the period for which men who have sex with men (MSM) must refrain from having sex before they can donate blood be reduced from 12 to six months.
But LGBTI rights advocates say the new policy will continue to exclude condom-using gay men in committed relationships, while donating heterosexuals will still be able to have as many sexual partners as they want.
The Australian Red Cross Blood Service’s Blood Review Report, released on April 24, found that of the viruses it tests for, Hepatitis C had the longest window of non-detection. It recommended an exclusion period for MSM of double the virus’s 94-day non detection window.
“A deferral period of six months incorporates an empirical safety margin that approximately doubles the length of time of the upper estimate of the HCV testing window period,” the report found.
In relation to HIV among MSM, the committee acknowledged the existence of “a subgroup of MSM who are at low risk of infection such as MSM in monogamous relationships.”
However, as people do not always have honest information from their partners about their fidelity, the committee found that the greater rate of HIV within the MSM community would “introduce an unacceptable risk to the ongoing safety of the blood supply” if MSM were screened based on behaviour rather than orientation.
Hepatitis C is usually spread through intravenous drug use, and it is unclear whether the virus can be sexually transmitted – though a recent Victorian study has suggested that HIV-positive MSM are more susceptible to the virus.
Campaigner Michael Cain, whose Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commission case sparked the review, said the change would make little difference to the sustainability of Australia’s blood supply.
“The only way to remove discrimination from blood donation and increase the pool of safe blood from donors such as myself is to adopt a policy which screens all donors for the safety of their sexual activity rather than the gender of their partner,” Cain said.
Tasmanian gay rights advocate Rodney Croome, who assisted in Cain’s case, said the review was flawed because it drew on data about rates of HIV among gay men from studies done in sex venues and bars.
“Experts who appeared in Michael Cain’s case made it clear that the data upon which the current ban is based only takes into account people with high HIV risk and ignores the vast bulk of gay men who are at much lower risk.”
“It’s extremely disappointing that the review has replicated this mistake. The only way to resolve this issue is for the Government to commission a truly independent review.”
The Blood Service will now seek to undertake a compliance study in partnership with The University of NSW’s the Kirby Institute.