An international search to find a matching bone marrow donor for a London-based student with an aggressive form of leukaemia has highlighted the restrictions on donations from gay and bisexual men in Australia.
The Match4Lara campaign was established this month for 24-year-old Lara Casalotti, a Chinese-Thai-Italian woman who's described by her family as being passionate about human rights and refugee issues. She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia at Christmas last year and will require a bone marrow transplant by April this year if she's to survive.
The campaign website for Casalotti explains that the search for a match is complicated by her mixed heritage, which makes it extremely hard to find a donor as matching types are an inherited trait. Only three per cent of donors on the public registries are of mixed race.
An Australian man of Chinese, Italian and Danish heritage, who had hoped to help in the international search to find Casalotti a match, spoke to SBS about his disappointment in discovering he couldn't register to be a donor because of Australian restrictions on male donors who have sexual contact with men.
"I actually thought it was fine and I was filling out the form, and then I got to the last set of questions and it asks if you're a man who has sex with men. That's how I found out."
"Some colleagues of mine in the United States who had a connection [to Lara Casalotti] emailed me about the campaign and told me they were looking for Eurasian donors," the man, who requested his name be withheld, said.
"So I went on to the Australian Bone Marrow Registry and in the back of my mind I knew I couldn't donate blood and I was wondering whether the same applied. I actually thought it was fine and I was filling out the form, and then I got to the last set of questions and it asks if you're a man who has sex with men. That's how I found out."
Under the 'temporary exclusions' in its eligibility criteria, the Australian Bone Marrow Donor Registry (ABMDR) lists men who have had sex with men (MSM) in the last 12 months as being ineligible to become a bone marrow donor - similar to restrictions on MSM donating blood. It also restricts women who have had sexual contact with MSM from registering.
Canada, the UK and the US no longer have bans on MSM becoming bone marrow donors.
A spokesperson for the ABMDR confirmed the Australian restrictions to SBS and said the policy and its rationale is based on the same data used by the Red Cross Blood Service to defend its ban on MSM. The Red Cross sought to lower deferrals from 12 to 6 months for MSM, but it was rejected by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2014.
"If the Blood Service’s work to reduce the MSM deferral period from 12 months to 6 months for blood donors had been successful, the ABMDR would have followed suit. However the Blood Service’s submission was not approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration," a Red Cross spokesperson told SBS.
"A lot of Australians would be shocked to find a ban like this is still in place."
Australian Greens Senator Robert Simms, who has pushed for a review of the current 12 month blanket deferral for gay men and MSM wanting to donate blood, said he was unaware that there was also a ban on bone marrow donations.
"A lot of Australians would be shocked to find a ban like this is still in place," he said.
"There is a desperate need for donations like this, which have a life-saving impact, and we want to be encouraging people to help.
"I'm certainly concerned and think this is out of step with changes in technology and methods of testing."