f) Lots of other LGBT issues
Gay blood ban review must be transparent
This article about gay blood donation was published on the ABC Unleashed webpage on 12.4.10
A review of Australia’s ban on sexually-active gay men giving blood, just announced by the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, is long over due.
In recent years similar reviews have occurred in Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, Sweden, and appear likely soon in the US.
Since 2006 a review has also had the support of Australia’s community AIDS organisations, which have traditionally supported the ban.
But until now the Australian Red Cross has been reluctant to look at its policy.
It’s standard justification for the ban is that a majority of Australians with HIV have been infected through male-to-male sex.
While this is true, it also ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of gay men do not have HIV, and will never have HIV, thanks to the efficacy of safe sex.
Frustrated by the ARCBS’s position, Tasmanian gay man, Michael Cain, took the ARCBS to the State Anti-Discrimination Tribunal in 2008.
His argument was that all potential donors should be screened for the safety of their sexual activity rather than the gender of their sexual partner, because it is unsafe sex, not male-to-male sex, which is responsible for HIV infection.
The evidence presented by Mr Cain’s expert witnesses highlighted the important developments which make a review necessary.
The first is that improvements in clinical technology now allow HIV to be detected in blood less than two weeks after infection.
This greatly reduces the risk associated with donation from people who are newly infected and don’t yet know they have the virus.
The second is that the research upon which the gay blood ban is based is out-dated and irrelevant.
The Red Cross argued that gay men have a “high prevalence of HIV” because “many report high levels of casual sex”, and “do not practice safe sex”.
But social researchers appearing for Michael Cain pointed out that these claims are based on studies designed specifically to look at HIV risk among small, unrepresentative samples of gay men drawn from inner-city bars, STD clinics and sex-on-premises venues.
More recent and more representative studies show that many gay men are as sexually exclusive and responsible as other people.
When the HIV risk among these gay men was compared to HIV risk among some heterosexuals currently allowed to give blood, using mathematical models developed specifically for Michael’s case, it was clear that the former pose a lower risk to the safety of the blood supply than the latter.
On legal grounds the Tribunal ruled the current ban should remain.
But it also agreed that donation from some gay men would pose negligible risk to our blood supply, and added its voice to the growing call for a review.
While welcoming the ARCBS’s proposed review, Michael Cain, has warned it must be “comprehensive and transparent”.
It became clear during hearings in Michael’s case that the Red Cross did not draw on the full range of available research and expertise when it adopted its current policy or when it was responding to his proposal.
To ensure full public confidence in the proposed review, it must include evidence submitted during Michael's case, as well as developments that have emerged since his case ended.
These developments include the use of the chemical compound methylene blue in several European countries to ensure blood plasma is completely free from HIV, as well as data from Italy which shows a sustained and dramatic decrease in HIV-infection-through-transfusion since donors began to be screened for unsafe sex rather than gay sex.
Most of all, the Red Cross review must include all stakeholders.
This includes representatives of both people with haemophilia, who suffered terrible loss of life from contaminated blood in the 1980s and 90s, and the gay community, which has endured the stigma of being effectively labelled a threat to public health.
Our common aim is a plentiful supply of safe blood for all Australians.
An inclusive and unbiased review offers everyone with a stake in the issue of gay blood donation an opportunity to work together to achieve this goal.
Rodney Croome is a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group and was a researcher for Michael Cain’s anti-discrimination case.
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