A CONTROVERSIAL ban on gay men donating blood was reduced as there was no evidence it would increase HIV risk.
However, a controversial one year ‘celibacy’ rule was maintained whereby gay men could not have sex for a year before giving blood because of fears of future “emerging sexually transmitted diseases”.
A report from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) explained how it was not an “irrational fear” to believe a new infection or a mutant HIV strain could develop in coming years.
Written by Dr William Murphy, the IBTS Medical and Scientific Director, it said: “A sexually transmitted infection spreads much faster in the MSM [men who have sex with men] community, with complex dynamics.”
He wrote: “While the risk from heterosexual encounters is not insignificant, MSM comprise a substantial proportion of the potential risk of spread of a new sexually transmitted infection in Ireland.”
Evidence had clearly shown that changing the ban from a long one to a shorter one caused no increased risk of HIV transmission.
Four countries — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK — had changed their rules on gay men giving blood to reduce the length of time in which they were prohibited from donating.
None of the countries had experienced an increase in the number of blood donations found to be HIV positive and in the UK, the rate had in actual fact dropped.
Dr Murphy said: “Whether this decrease can be attributed to the change in deferral policy cannot be determined, but it is encouraging that the observed change was in the direction of decreased incidence of disease.”
The report describes in detail the near-impossible task of trying to balance public health benefits with non-discrimination while predicting the future.
Dr Murphy wrote: “It will always be very difficult or impossible to show that removing the lifelong ban or replacing it will make patient safety better, so that the reason for removing it, even if there are no sound reasons for keeping it, lies outside the strict realm of patient safety.”
The report explained also that if a lifetime ban was in place for gay men, then by rights it should be needed for countless other groups to whom it did not currently apply.
Dr Murphy wrote: “If a lifelong ban were necessary … then a similar lifelong ban would be necessary for men who have sex with sex workers, women who have sex with men who have sex with sex workers, women who have sex with MSM [men who have sex with men] and so forth.”
The recommendations made by the IBTS to reduce the ban to a year was accepted by the Department of Health.
The changes, which were announced in January, said that gay men would be “deferred” from donating blood for a year after their last sexual encounter with a man, and that anyone with a sexually transmitted infection would be banned for five years after.
The Department of Health asked that a surveillance system be put in place to monitor the impact of the policy change and that clear plans were made to communicate the rationale behind the decision to blood donors and the Irish public.
The Department of Health also received letters from members of the public, several suggesting the lifetime ban should have stayed.
One person against removal of the ban wrote: “This proposal originates in the simplistic view that ‘equality’ between gay and heterosexual people should be imposed regardless of the irrationality of the idea … just because other countries have done this is no reason why Ireland should follow suit.”
Another addressed their letter directly to Health Minister Simon Harris and said: “Your job is to run the health service … there are far more pressing issues that you should be focusing on and less of chasing easy media wins.”
Gay men who were married and monogamous also wrote to say they felt the one-year ‘no sex’ ban was discriminatory.
One wrote: “It is extremely insulting to think that conditions being considered, such as ‘not having had sex with another man in the previous year’ would apply to myself and my partner of [30+] years who have been in a monogamous relationship for all that time and who are now married.”
Others also wrote to ask that a ban on Irish people who lived in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s be lifted. It was introduced because of fears over the spread of BSE [mad cow disease].
Another person who had given blood for years was given a ‘false positive’ for HIV and complained that he (or she) had since been barred from donating.
The IBTS said in a statement: “[We have] a number of criteria which a person must fulfil before they are eligible to donate. One of these excludes people from donating based on their behaviour.
“We do not ask any donor about their marital status, the deferral is based on the behaviour which creates the risk, which is the sexual activity of men who have sex with men.”