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Blood Donation Ban Unjustified

By on September 8, 2011

The lifetime ban on blood donations by homosexual and bisexual men will be lifted in England, Scotland and Wales but not in the United States.

European health ministers have agreed to let men who have not had sex with another man in the past 12 months to donate come November 7th. Originally the donor restrictions were put in place in the 1980s to prevent the risk of HIV contamination. But now that we know it’s the behavior not the sexual orientation that places people at risk for HIV, is this ban ethical? Is it even effective?

For example, a gay man in a monogamous relationship who has only had oral sex will still
automatically (prior to policy change) be unable to give blood but a heterosexual man who has had multiple sex partners without a condom will not be questioned about his behavior. Also consider other lifesaving donations gay men are excluded from because of sexuality (e.g. organs, bone marrow, plasma, etc.).

Apparently,  medical evidence presented to a government panel argued the ban could no longer be justified. Ministers in the three countries accepted the argument and said they would be relaxing the rules. Northern Ireland is expected to make a decision soon.

The National Blood Service screens all donations for HIV and other infections. However, there is a “window period” after infection during which it is impossible to detect the virus. Research published last year, suggested there was no significant increase in the risk of HIV infection after the change in the rules in Australia.

Dr Lorna Williamson, medical and research director of National Health Service Blood and Transplant, said: “The change does not alter the estimated risk, therefore patients needing a transfusion can be sure blood is safe.”

The implications for the United States remains to be seen but this issue has gain traction in research and public health circles as a lifetime ban based on sexual orientation and/or identity is not relevant to behavioral risks for HIV infection. Risk of HIV infection is virtually the same (extremely low) regardless of a ban for homosexuals or a time limit.

Risks of transmission

  • Lifetime exclusion – risk of one infection in every 4.41 million donations
  • Five-year time limit – risk of one infection in every 4.39 million donations
  • One-year time limit – risk of one infection in every 4.38 million donations
  • No limit – risk of one infection in every 3.48 million donations

Source: Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs

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