Health

OPINION: Why I’m fighting for a change to our blood donation policies

Australia’s donation policy reinforces outdated stereotypes that stigmatise and invalidate same-sex male relationships, writes medical student and campaigner Ky Ruprecht.

My partner first heard of Australia's blood donation policies when he tried to donate himself. There, at an event he'd gone to alongside nursing colleagues, he was rejected.

Many people are unaware that as a man in a same-sex relationship in Australia in 2019, I cannot donate my blood.

My partner and I are in a long-term monogamous relationship and are both negative for any bloodborne diseases. He is a nurse and I am a medical student. Our colleagues, family and friends regularly donate blood and are often surprised to learn why we cannot.

The current policy enforces a 12-month deferral period for any man who has oral or anal sex with another man, with or without a condom. This means while Con and I are together, we will never be eligible to donate.

Blood donation
Ky and his partner Con have started a petition to see Australia's blood donation requirements changed.
Supplied

Australia has gone from being a policy leader, to falling behind.

An indefinite ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) was introduced in the early 1980's in response to the HIV/AIDs crisis. In the late 1990's Australia was one of the first countries to move from a permanent ban to a 12-month deferral. This deferral period is intended to account for a window where a disease can potentially remain undetected in the body.

Almost twenty years later, despite significant advances in detection, prevention and education the policy remains unchanged.

A three-month deferral is now widely considered to exceed what is required to maintain blood safety. In light of this, many countries are reviewing their policies.

Canada and the UK have both moved to 3-month deferrals and Denmark has introduced a 4-month deferral period, announcing they will scrap deferrals for monogamous same-sex males. Israel permits plasma donation for MSM.

The year-long wait in Australia reinforces outdated stereotypes that stigmatise and invalidate same-sex male relationships - like mine. 

A heterosexual person can engage in unprotected sex with as many partners as they like, in whatever way they like and are eligible to donate.

They're trusted to decide if their exposure risk compromises the safety of their donation; this is a privilege not extended to queer men.

Let's be clear, the most important consideration for blood donor eligibility is to maintain a secure and safe blood supply. Screening questionnaires intend to remove people who are at high risk of disease exposure and all blood products are tested for viral and bacterial contaminants.

HIV incidence and prevalence is higher in MSM populations - this is frequently cited as justification for this policy - but the risk of exposure is not the same for every individual in this group.

Under the current policy all same-sex male contact is considered high-risk sexual behaviour. 

This superficial examination of what constitutes risk casts a wide net of unnecessary exclusion.

Given the increased demand for blood products in Australia and reported shortages, we need to consider ways to increase the blood donor pool without compromising safety. Reducing the deferral period, allowing plasma donation and introducing risk-based assessment seem like logical options.

We have written a short petition aimed at highlighting the senselessness of excluding two healthy potential donors based on the gender of their partner.

With such an enormous gap between the window period for HIV detection and the deferral period the current policy seems only to reinforce prejudicial social attitudes about our community.

The deferral is no longer about safety it's about fear. With other countries safely utilising our donor pool it raises the question, why is Australia lagging behind?

Ky Ruprecht, Second Year medical Student at The Australian National University

You can find Ky's petition here, and more information here.