Last month the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australia’s regulatory agency for medical drugs and devices, blocked a recommendation from the Aus- tralian Red Cross Blood Service to reduce the waiting pe- riod for blood donations from sexually-active men who have sex with men (MSM) from 12 to six months.
But when contacted by the Star Observer on Tuesday this week, Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations executive officer Rob Lake – who also sits on the Red Cross’ Blood Donor Referral Advisory Panel – expressed surprise at not being informed of the TGA’s decision.
Social media users also expressed anger at the decision this week, with the vast majority believing it to be a form of discrimination against MSM wanting to partake in a community service.
Lake echoed their sentiments: “Often, gay men who are refused the opportunity to donate blood are confused or shocked at the automatic exclusion they face for making what is a community-minded decision.”
The blocked recommendation followed an expert review panel commissioned by the Red Cross Blood Service to assess regulations around sexual-activity-based blood donor deferrals in 2011.
The current 12 month deferral period is based on classifying all oral or anal sex between men, protected or unprotected, as “at risk sexual activity” on the basis of a “prevalence of infection” in the MSM demographic.
Women who have had protected or unprotected sex with a man who they “think may have had oral or anal sex (with or without a condom) with another man” were also deferred for 12 months, as were sex workers and those who have had sex with them.
The TGA rejected the application to reduce the deferral to six months because it argued the change would mean an increased risk of infection being passed on through the blood supply but no significant boost to blood donor numbers.
Red Cross Blood Service spokesperson Shaun Inguanzo told the Star Observer the organisation still stood by the research behind their recommendation.
“We were confident—and remain so—that our analysis showed no increased risk to the safety of blood or blood products by changing the deferral from 12 to six months,” he said.
“We commissioned a review panel who supported a reduction from 12 to six months. We considered it, agreed with it, and made a submission to the TGA on that basis. We still support a reduction to six months.
“[The TGA’s decision] was disappointing. We had several discussions with the TGA in the lead-up to their decision and we were confident that we had taken a very comprehensive evidence-based approach.”
Inguanzo said they may conduct another review of the deferral period at a future date.
“If there is notable change in any factors that bear on the deferral period, we’d carry out a review,” he said.
“The most influential factors would be study results from overseas that would support a reduction in the deferral period, HIV trends in the general and donor population, and substantially improved testing for identification of HIV.”
Meanwhile, Lake said the recommendation put forward to the TGA was based on “sound research” and “good evidence”.
“It seems that the TGA has erred too far on the side of caution and AFAO will be seeking a review of this widely-awaited decision,” he said.
“We, along with the Red Cross, believe that the evidence support- ing the deferral reduction is growing and will continue to pursue the reduction.”
Last year saw renewed calls by activists to reduce the USA’s lifetime ban on MSM blood donations since 1977.
The ban gained national attention following a petition that urged the US Food and Drug Administration to lift the ban. Its refusal to do so lead to protests across the country. Despite their policy being labelled “discriminatory” and “unnecessary”, the agency has maintained its position in support of the indefinite ban.
The Australian debate is also paralleled in New Zealand, where the deferral period for MSM is five years. A preliminary report from the New Zealand Blood Service recommends reducing deferrals to one year, but some LGBTI lobby groups are calling for an end to blanket deferrals, arguing decisions to defer donors should be made on a case-by-case basis.
The Star Observer made repeated attempts to contact the TGA for comment and further information, but a response was not received at the time of print.