Blood ban harks back to dark ages

Sean Bent questions the archaic logic behind some contentious Irish laws.

The recent blood ban campaign in UCC has been a powerful reminder to us all of the inequalities in society that have managed to survive even to this modern day and age.  It teaches us that we still have a long way to go in terms of achieving a country where people of all sexual orientations can contribute equally to important causes. Understandably, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service’s (IBTS)  outright, lifelong ban on men who have sex with men(MSM)  donating blood has been a cause of much hurt and indignation among the gay community  in Ireland. It’s not limited to Ireland though as there is a similar ban in places such as Britain. Simply put, many view it as discrimination based on poor logic and questionable evidence.

To better understand the issue, let’s start by looking at the ban’s origin. It first came about during the early 80s when the understanding of AIDS was still within its infantile stages. When the rapid spread of the disease became apparent, MSM were identified as being the group with the highest risk of HIV infection. A blanket ban on MSM donating blood was implemented as an attempt to stem the spread of the disease through blood transfusions. Given that tests for HIV were unavailable when the ban was put in place, it’s easy to see the rationale behind cutting out the group they perceived as highest risk of infecting people who receive transfusions.

This is all very well as a measure acted upon during the early 80s but almost three decades have passed since then. Groundbreaking advances in microbiology and biochemistry mean that we now have screening tests for diagnosing a blood sample with HIV and other pathogens with an accuracy of around 97-99%. This combined with much more advanced contraceptive measures and sexual health awareness would naturally lead one to expect that the lifelong ban on MSM donating blood would be lifted. This is obviously not the case.

The susceptibility to infection of one group of people compared to another is a contentious issue. It’s not my area of knowledge and not something I will discuss within this article. However, it is baffling to many as to how the IBTS can continue to impose an outright ban on MSM donations given that the degree of accuracy of screening that each blood donation undergoes significantly reduces the chance of infections being spread via transfusions. Detection of the virus is more difficult during the first ten or so days after infection and it is for this reason that other high risk groups such as those who’ve had sexual relations with someone known to have HIV or within the prostitution industry are given a one year period in which they cannot give blood.

This safety measure is fine but MSM are not privy to the same protocol. Instead any man who has had anal or oral sex with another man, whether or not a condom was used and whether or not they have been tested several times for the virus and been shown to be safe, are banned from donating blood for life. This process does not take into account the widely varying sexual lifestyles of MSM and instead lumps all of them into a damaging, overly-promiscuous stereotype. Of course there is the risk that a blood donation from an MSM may surpass the screening and infect another person but this can be said of every other group, high risk of infection or not. Yet the ban remains for one group and one group only.

A standard risk assessment for people of all sexual orientations needs to be put in place. Countries such as Italy, Spain and France have introduced such procedures. This has led to safe and maximised supply of blood. In Ireland and Britain, a huge amount of potentially lifesaving blood is completely lost due to an illogical system based upon falsified stereotypes.

The situation as it stands inevitably leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many as the criteria for donating is clearly discriminatory. The recent efforts of the UCC’s LGBT community to petition against the ban are admirable and a necessary message to the IBTS. They must know that the people of Ireland will not simply lie down and allow such inequality to go unchallenged. As for when things will change, it’s difficult to make predictions. Perhaps when the act allowing civil partnerships comes into effect either late this year or early next year, some of the major legal issues within the gay community can be allowed to finally rest and medical issues such as this can take more precedence. Also, with procedures such as chemical treatment of blood to kill contaminants on the rise and the efficiency of such procedures improving, a lift on the ban may well be on the horizon within the next few years.

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