Thursday, March 18, 2004

Do you want my blood?

I came across a report today about a Canadian school that has agreed to bar the blood donation form using its premises until sexually active gay men can donate blood. It seems that in Canada, as in the UK, all blood donations are screened for HIV. Yet, as an added layer of protection, both agencies screen out male donors who've had sex at least one time with a man since 1977.

The school board commented that the "current ban on gay donors leaves the false impression only homosexuals are at risk for contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS and as an educational institution, we cannot allow this kind of false perception to continue." There has been some debate about whether a school should take a public stand on social debates occurring outside the classroom. As the school board chair said "Our primary focus has to be on matters of education, but being elected means sometimes you have to get involved politically."

Full marks to them for this. There is no doubt that gay and bisexual men have high levels of HIV infection compared to some other communities, but the key is whether someone has had risky sex rather than whether they have had sex with another man. I used to donate blood regularly when I was a student, but stopped in about 1990 when the UK blood service restricted donations from men who had sex with other men. I entered into a long correspondence with the service about the discriminatory nature of the ban, noting that I had only ever had protected sex, whereas I knew heterosexual friends who had participated in unprotected sex could donate blood freely. The blood service didn’t seem to agree with my viewpoint citing patient safety as their key concern.

I cannot disagree with ensuring that the blood supply is safe, but there has to be a better way of identifying the risk factors rather than a blanket ban.