Relaxed restrictions on LGBTIQ+ blood donors amid coronavirus pandemic not enough, advocates say

Australia's therapeutic goods regulator has approved a submission to reduce the amount of time a person must wait to donate blood after engaging in high-risk sexual activity, but LGBTIQ+ advocates say the move isn’t enough.

The Australian Red Cross is urging people to continue donating "vital" blood during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Australian Red Cross is urging people to continue donating "vital" blood during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: AAP

LGBTIQ+ advocates say a move by Australia's therapeutic goods regulator to reduce the amount of time a person must wait to donate blood after engaging in sexual activity considered high-risk for contracting infectious disease doesn't go far enough.

On Wednesday, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced it had approved a submission to reduce the waiting period for whole blood donors with a "sexual activity-based risk factor" from 12 to three months since their last sexual contact.

The decision applies to men who have sex with men, women who have sex with men who have had sex with men, transgender people who have sex with men, people who have had sex in a country with high rates of HIV, people who have had sex with an injecting drug user, and sex workers.

The TGA's decision now requires approval from all Australian state and territory governments.

But LGBTIQ+ advocates have called for the complete removal of the restriction on gay men donating blood, describing the reduction in time as a "window dressing".

"The new three-month celibacy rule will not significantly increase the amount of safe blood available for transfusion because it leaves most gay men who are safe to give blood still unable to donate," Rodney Croome, spokesperson for LGBTIQ+ advocacy group just.equal, said.

"At a time of crisis when blood shortages are looming, it is vital that all Australians who are not at risk of passing on blood-borne diseases are able to donate, including those gay men who are not at risk."

Mr Croome said maintaining a "celibacy period" for all sexually-active gay men was a remnant of the 1980s, when he said HIV transmission was less understood and "being gay was synonymous with having AIDS".

The TGA said its decision was based on "risk analysis ... which demonstrates that recipient safety remains within the accepted risk tolerance parameters".

The United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States have all recently reduced the deferral period - the time that donors are postponed from donating after the sexual activity - for gay men to three months.

Blood donations 'absolutely vital'

Meanwhile, as fewer people donate blood due to the coronavirus social distancing restrictions in place across the country, the Australian Red Cross has called on people to continue donating blood, which it says is an "absolutely vital" service.

The Red Cross, which lodged the submission with the TGA, said deferral policies are regularly reviewed and supported by up-to-date clinical and scientific evidence.

Australian Red Cross blood donor centres remain open.
Source: Australian Red Cross Lifeblood

"Lifeblood would like to make it easier for all Australians to give blood, while ensuring Australia’s blood and blood products are as safe as possible for blood recipients," the statement read.

The TGA's proposed changes currently only apply to whole blood donations, with plasma donors still subject to the 12-month deferral period. 

People who are undertaking pre-exposure HIV prevention treatment, known as PrEP, will also need to wait a year after treatment before giving blood.

There have been no confirmed reports of COVID-19 being transmitted by blood transfusion.

"Our strict screening process means we don’t allow people who are unwell to donate blood," the Red Cross said.

The Department of Health has been contacted for comment.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.


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Published 16 April 2020 at 6:20pm
By Maani Truu