‘Because I am gay, I am denied the chance to potentially save someone’s life’
Edward Smith has a rare blood type, sought by the IBTS, but his attempts to donate are rebuffed
I HAVE one of the rarest blood types, but I can’t donate blood, because I have a boyfriend.
The current policy held by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS), preventing men who sleep with men (MSM) from donating blood, is, in my opinion, discriminatory.
What’s more baffling is that, mine is an opinion shared by the medical and scientific director of the IBTS, Dr William Murphy.
In an interview for this article he told me: “It’s not right that we have as offensive and as discriminatory a policy as we do,” said Dr Murphy. Why then is such a policy still in place?
Even more perplexing is that my particular blood type is rare and actively sought by the IBTS.
Known as the universal donor, it’s the only blood type that can be given to anyone in emergency situations. My father is a universal donor too and receives text messages from the IBTS regularly, requesting a donation, but I get turned away at the door.
I’m being robbed by the IBTS of the chance to potentially save someone’s life. I feel punished by this policy. I’m perfectly healthy, but I have a boyfriend and, consequently, I’m permanently excluded from donating.
At the blood donor clinic in Dublin, all appeared as one might imagine, until I mentioned I had a boyfriend. I was asked to join a nurse in a private room where I was told I was not eligible to donate.
I compiled my concerns in an email and TD Mary Mitchel O’Connor drafted two parliamentary questions to the Minister for Health on the matter, to which he replied: “The (IBTS) remit is to provide a safe, reliable, robust blood service to the Irish health system.
“Blood, and the products derived from it, are an integral facet of healthcare delivery.
“A major objective of the IBTS is to ensure that it always has the necessary programmes and procedures in place to protect both the donors of blood and the recipients of blood and blood products.
“The EU Directive on quality and safety of blood requires that ‘all necessary measures have been taken to safeguard the health of individuals who are recipients of blood and blood components’.
“The permanent deferral of [MSM] from donating blood is not based on sexuality or orientation but on the fact that there are increased levels of HIV infection among men who have sex with men in Ireland.
“Decisions of the IBTS on such matters are based on available evidence. Data available in Ireland from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, as well as from international sources, is kept under review.
“The most recent full year data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre is in respect of 2012 and, in that year, 341 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in Ireland.
“The highest proportion of new diagnoses, 166 (nearly 49%), was in MSM and this proportion has been increasing since 2004.
“Full year results for 2013 are not yet available, but the data for the first two quarters of that year show rates similar to 2012. These rates of HIV infection in MSM are disproportionately high, considering that MSM account for a relatively small proportion of the population.
“The IBTS keeps its eligibility criteria for donating under regular, ongoing review, working closely with blood services internationally.”
Hiv is a highly infectious disease but, whether it is or isn't more prevalent in MSM, it doesn’t justify a permanent exclusion for an entire minority.
All blood donated is vigorously tested. A blanket approach and exclusion is not based on scientific evidence.
Interestingly, the Minister didn’t mention the 130 heterosexuals diagnosed with HIV within the same period. I would argue the majority of MSM get tested regularly because they are reminded constantly by posters, leaflets and literature in gay clubs and gay hangouts.
This could account for why HIV is on the rise with MSM in comparison to heterosexuals. Sexual health specialist, Dr Shay Keating, says: “The majority of gay men are very proactive in addressing their sexual health needs.”
The argument regarding HIV having a particularly long incubation period, known as a Window Period, does not justify the permanent exclusion of perfectly healthy gay men from donating blood.
Dr Murphy said that the Window Period is about seven days in the hands of the IBTS, but could be as little as a few hours because its tests are so sensitive and test for the DNA of the HIV virus.
It’s a policy that chastises honesty. I know a gay man who doesn’t disclose his sexuality and donates blood. I tell the truth and get turned away at the door. The rules of statistics suggest that some gay men lie and donate. In my opinion, this suggests the IBTS has more confidence in its testing methods, particularly with regard to the window period argument, because if the ban on gay men is really necessary and essential to ensure the safety of blood, surely the IBTS would take more stringent measures than simply accepting each prospective donor’s word that he is not gay and sexually active.
If the current policy is based on taking the donor’s word, then surely a simple question to all, gay or straight, regarding their last sexual encounter, and implementing a deferral for a few weeks if necessary, would easily eliminate the discrimination?
If a woman has had relations with MSM, then the woman is deferred for only one year, when the man is permanently excluded. Where is the equality, or logic? Surely this must be discriminatory?
In 2011, the UK and Scotland lifted the permanent exclusion on blood donation for gay men, stating that scientific evidence no longer supports the permanent exclusion of MSM from donating blood.
A leading physician in sexual health, Dr Derek Freedman said that: “Sixteen percent of MSM’s attending GUM clinics in London are HIV positive.”
This is a much higher risk factor than in Ireland. Yet, the UK has lifted the ban due to the fact that scientific evidence doesn’t support it, but Ireland still refuses. Why?