14 May 2014

Gay blood donor rules set to change

8:50 am on 14 May 2014

The rules that prevent some gay men from being able to give blood are about to change.

Changes are coming to the rules that prevent gay men from giving blood.

Changes are coming to the rules that prevent gay men from giving blood. Photo: AFP

At the moment, gay men are automatically banned from donating blood for five years, after having unprotected sex, because of the higher risk of HIV.

The rule was first introduced at the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1980s.

Initially gay men were banned from donating permanently but when the Blood Service formed in 1998 it got rid of the ban in favour of a ten year deferral. A decade later that was reduced to five.

Now, the Blood Service has accepted recommendations to cut the time further, from five years to 12 months.

The changes also cover sex workers and people from countries with a high prevalence of HIV.

Medical director of the Blood Service, Dr Peter Flanagan, says the rules are there to make the blood supply as safe as possible.

"We are aware of the sensitivity, and are doing our best to manage it," he said.

The report that recommends the changes says between 1996 and 2008, men who have sex with men accounted 75% of all newly diagnosed HIV infections.

Dr Flanagan says although better detection methods mean the time period can be dropped, a deferral is still needed.

"In the very early stages the virus may be present in the donation and it may not be detected by our test. Because of that our most effective approach to assure ongoing safety is to combine that testing with specific deferrals of individuals who are at higher risk of acquiring the infection."

Gay rights group Rainbow Wellington says the changes are encouraging, but don't go far enough.

Rainbow Wellington's secretary Tony Reid says it wanted individual risk-assessments instead of a shorter deferral.

Mr Reid says it may make a complaint with the Human Rights Commission about the decision.

The Commission says it receives a number of complaints each year about the eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men.

Aids Foundation executive director Sean Robinson says it's unlikely there will ever not be a deferral period for those most at risk of having infected blood.

"It's far better to take a generalised approach based on a scientific assessment of the risk."

A report on the rule changes needs to go to MedSafe for final approval.

Once it's given, the Blood Service expects the changes will be implemented, at the earliest, by the end of this year.