The blanket ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood is contributing to Australia’s donation shortage (Image Source: Borgen Magazine)
By Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse
Last week a national blood shortage was announced, with the Red Cross urgently calling for 5000 people with the O negative blood type to donate, stating that they had reached their lowest levels of the year.
Yet, despite the critical need for blood donors, the Red Cross continues to regulate a strict blanket ban over a large portion of Australians from donating blood.
“Many people are unaware that, as a man in a same-sex relationship in Australia in 2019, I cannot donate my blood,” Ky Ruprecht, a medical student from the Australian National University, said.
Both Ky and his partner Connor Lynch, who is working as a nurse, are unable to donate blood due to current deferrals for men who have sex with men (MSM) in Australia.
As regulated by the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, MSM cannot donate blood for 12 months after their last sexual encounter with another man.
This includes oral or anal sex, with or without a condom.
These regulations were put in place by the Red Cross to prevent the risk of HIV and other bloodborne diseases contaminating blood supplies.
For those in long-term relationships like Ky and Connor, this excludes them from ever donating blood while they are together.
Both men said they have been tested and are negative of any bloodborne diseases like HIV, and due to their monogamous relationship, will not be having any other sexual partners that could put them at risk of contracting anything.
As a nurse, Connor said that every week he sees how important blood and blood products are to the well-being and recovery of patients.
He also sees how they [the hospital] are often in short supply of blood, yet he is unable to donate himself.
Connor said he felt embarrassed having to explain to friends why he wasn’t allowed to donate, while Ky said he remembered feeling shocked and disgusted when he first found out about the ban.
“The policy infers all male same–sex relationships exist in a sphere of high-risk sexual encounters,” Ky said.
“This is a complete fallacy and I felt unfairly condemned.”
Ky and Connor started a petition last month to raise awareness of what they describe as the “absurdity” of the current blanket ban placed on all MSM donating blood.
Connor had noticed that many people were unaware of the ban, and it is the couple’s hope that this petition can spread awareness and push the Red Cross and the Therapeutic Goods Administration to reconsider their position on the issue.
Both men are aware that donating blood is not an individual right, therefore they said it is tricky to call it discrimination, as the Red Cross are not taking away anyone’s rights.
They also said they understand a safe blood bank is the most important consideration.
They do believe though that the blanket ban is prejudicial and makes assumptions based on outdated rules.
“The blanket ban imposed on this population is fundamentally discriminatory as there is no consideration of an individual’s actual risk,” Ky said.
“Improved screening questionnaires could accurately stratify different risk levels within this population, allowing low-risk individuals the ability to donate.”
The couple suggested the 12-month deferral period be lifted and replaced with a screening tool that assesses an individual’s risk, taking their case into consideration if they’ve declared monogamy and proof of negative HIV status.
They do not support a reduction in the deferral period as they said it does nothing to address the current issue that not all men who have sex with men share the same risk profile.
“These measures could accurately stratify the risk of potential MSM donation, and provide opportunities to increase the donor pool without introducing an increased risk of contamination to the blood bank,” Ky said.
“Only this week, a blood shortage was announced by the Red Cross. Surely a revision of their donor eligibility could safely serve to meet some of this demand.
“Furthermore, excluding queer men from donating perpetuates the insidious social perception that these individuals are dangerous, irresponsible, hedonistic and inherently untrustworthy.”
However, this deferral doesn’t only affect queer men, but also prevents some women from giving blood.
Nat Tencic, the host of Triple J radio show ‘The Hook Up’, is currently on a year–long ban from donating blood after having sex with a bisexual man, despite using protection and neither being HIV positive.
Nat said this ban is frustrating because it feels “silly and unnecessary”, as there is the slimmest chance that her blood could be contaminated.
“If I had not known my sexual partner’s orientation, my donation would have been accepted without issue,” she said.
“Making sweeping demographic bans when there are shortages of blood donations is mind-boggling to me.
“With better safe sex practices and access to PrEP driving a huge decline of HIV rats in MSM communities, it feels like a dated policy.”
Nat acknowledges that MSM is one of the largest HIV infected demographics, but said it is still “painting with a broad brush”.
“Further to that, HIV rates in heterosexuals are rising and only one in three heterosexual people have been tested for HIV,” she said.
“So there’s a much higher incidence of straight people living with and spreading HIV (and donating blood too) without knowing.”
However, the Australian Red Cross stated on their website that they believe this ban is not discriminatory.
“Our policy considers an assessment of risk and does not discriminate against anyone,” their website said.
“The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has visited this issue, and agrees that we are not being discriminatory with our deferral policy for men who have sex with men.”
According to their Sexual Activity Deferral Review, the Red Cross are currently reviewing the policies on sexual activity deferrals.
It stated that in a 2012 review, it was proposed that all sexual activity deferrals should be shortened from 12 months to six months.
However, the Therapeutic Goods Administration did not support this and thus, no change was made.
In addition, they do not support removing the deferral all together or screening for individual risks like Ky and Connor have suggested.
“Unfortunately, more detailed questions about sexual practices are not practical and will not change the scientific knowledge around the risk associated with men who have sex with men,” their website states.
The Red Cross also said they understand there are different levels of risk among MSM, but that their research has shown that even within a declared monogamous relationship, the risk is still higher than in heterosexual couples.
The Australian Federation of Aids Organisations (AFAO) believe the 12-month deferral period is “excessive and inconsistent with expert evidence”.
In their Blood Donor Deferral Update, they state they support the recommendation to shorten the deferral period from 12 months to six months.
However, the AFAO describe even the potential six-month deferral period as “cautious and conservative” but still support it as “the conclusion of the most recent expert review on this policy”.
Despite all of this, both Ky and Connor said that if they are given the chance, they will be regular blood donors.
Nat also said that as soon as her ban is lifted, she will be back to donate.
If you would like to show support for Ky and Connor’s cause, you can sign or share their petition here.