Your blood's no good here
Last week, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance of South Africa staged an unusual protest. Some of its male members donated blood, violating the blood donation criteria of the South African National Blood Service (or SANBS), which forbids donations from men ‘who have had sex with other men in the last five years.’ The Alliance claims the SANBS donation criteria is discriminatory, because the blood of young women between the ages of 18-24 -- the group with the highest HIV prevalence in the country – can be accepted. Furthermore, the SANBS has high-tech equipment that detects HIV in donated blood before it is used, and this constitutes another layer of protection. While such equipment cannot detect HIV in the blood of newly infected persons, this is in itself no reason to reject ‘gay’ blood and accept the blood of young women. For its part, the SANBS argues that it is merely following international guidelines to protect the safety of the blood supply.
The issue of the ‘gay blood ban’ extends far beyond Africa’s borders. A few years ago, protests were staged in Hong Kong. In Australia, a gay man has recently filed charges against the Australian Red Cross. The ban has been the object of student protests from Ireland to Montreal. In the United States, while the scientific basis of the ban has been questioned a number of times, a proposal to relax the ban was narrowly rejected by a Food and Drug Adminstration committee back in 2000.
The FDA rules on blood donation are really the heart of the matter, because they form the basis of the donation criteria for the American Red Cross and the Red Cross in most (if not all) other countries. In 1985, the FDA proposed the rule that a man could not donate blood if he had sex with another man – even once – since 1977. The rule obviously harks to a time when HIV/AIDS was considered a ‘gay disease’.
But how should this rule be considered in areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is largely transmitted heterosexually? The WHO states that blood donations should come from groups with low risk of TTIs (transfusion transmissible infections) but seems to acknowledge that high risk groups may be different in different regions of the world. Should blood donation criteria be determined by the most current epidemiological data on HIV prevalence among social groups, or should one forget social groups altogether, and concentrate on the risk behavior of individuals who wish to donate their blood? In either case, it seems irrational -- if not unethical -- to exclude people from donating blood on the basis of their sexual orientation alone.