The ‘unfair’ blood donation ban
THERE are fresh calls for an effective ban on homosexual men donating blood to be quashed in Australia, as "science moves on" from outdated and discriminatory policies.
Under current exclusion policies, a male prospective donor who has had sex with a man in the previous 12 months is unable to give blood.
It's something lobby groups like the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) have been trying to change for almost two decades.
The Red Cross Blood Service experiences regular shortages of supply, particularly for rarer blood types, but opponents of current rules believe gay men could help bridge the gap.
"Australia doesn't want to change its really high rate of success in terms of blood supply safety, but it still needs to be responsive to the scientific evidence we have," AFAO president Bridget Haire said.
"The fact is 12 months is just way too long. It's unreasonable and unnecessary, and it's deeply unfair - the science tells us that.
"If you're asked to accept something that introduces some level of discrimination between people, you can kind of accept it if it's necessary. But if it's unnecessary, it's wrong."
Australia is a world leader in blood testing and has not had a case of supply contamination in two decades.
"We have really good testing of blood being done now. Blood is tested for all of the relevant viruses - both the presence of the virus as well as the presence of antibodies," Ms Haire said.
"Even if you look at the test that takes the longest period of time to conduct, it's one month. If you double it as a kind of buffer for peace of mind, that's two months.
"The question is, why aren't we lowering the 12-month exclusion to two months? That is very reasonable. It is safe and perfectly scientifically relevant."
Gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome said making blood donation "less discriminatory" could be done without jeopardising risk.
"The blanket ban on gay blood donation is based on nothing more than prejudice," Mr Croome said.
"Evidence presented in a landmark case against the ban, taken several years ago by Tasmanian gay man Michael Cain, showed that there are gay men who have a lower risk of HIV than many of the heterosexual people who can currently donate."
Gay men in Australia are more likely to come into contact with HIV than heterosexual people and lesbian women, and as a result are viewed as "high risk" by blood banks.
However, new research from the Kirby Institute found new cases of HIV are on the decline in gay men but on the increase in heterosexual men.
"It shows that the kind of screening that happens in blood banks need to be more vigilant to people who don't belong to the (homosexual) population," Ms Haire said.
However there are no plans to adjust screening practices as a result of new HIV infection trends, indicating that current practices are not based on science.
"Screening should be appropriate for the risks that need to be there," she said.
There was a review of donor rules in 2012 comprising leading figures from the science community, which concluded that the exclusion period for sexually active gay men should be lowered to six months.
It was ultimately rejected by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, mostly based on their belief that change wasn't worth the extra numbers of donors.
"But things have changed even more since then. We wouldn't argue for six months because it's too long. We would argue for two months," Ms Haire said.
The Red Cross Blood Service insisted it doesn't ask donors about sexual orientation and instead screens based on sexual activity.
But Ms Haire said it's all semantics, given research shows most adults - regardless of sexuality - have had sex in the past year.
"Effectively gay men are unable to donate blood - it's quite a blanket exclusion," she said.
In the wake of a gun massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando in the US state of Florida in 2016, the LGBT community turned out in high numbers to donate blood to help survivors.
But many men were turned away, as the US has the some exclusions as Australia.
It was viewed as an unfortunately timed discrimination, which put the issue back on the agenda here, Ms Haire said.
"We know there's a large number of community-minded good citizens who want to do their bit, and they should be able to do so.
"It's a beautiful thing to do. You shouldn't be excluding a group of people for no reason."
The last case of infected blood "slipping through the cracks" and ending up in supply was in 1999, when a repeat donor unknowingly had HIV.
The blood was used in a transfusion, infecting the girl who received it. A host of new testing practices were implemented after that.
The higher level of testing brought in likely would have prevented that blood from being used, Ms Haire said.
"And the donor in that case was a heterosexual woman."
The Red Cross said it committed to another review when the recommendations in 2012 were knocked back by the TGA. The review is currently under way and the findings are expected to be released shortly, a spokesperson said.
An estimated one in three Australians will need blood in their lifetime, but only a small number of people donate.
"Every week, Australia needs over 25,000 blood donations," the Red Cross Blood Service said.