Conference hears calls to end ban on gay blood donations

Irish blood society likely to recommend reduction of ban from life to five years

Calls for the reduction or complete removal of an effective lifetime ban on sexually active gay men giving blood have been made at a conference discussing blood donation by men who have sex with men (MSM).

During the first session of the two-day conference hosted by the Irish Blood Transfusion Society, the organisation's chief medical and scientific officer, Dr William Murphy, said the removal of the lifetime deferral for MSM would act as a "societal good".

There is currently an effective ban on men who have ever had sex with other men from donating blood in Ireland, regardless of the frequency or length of time since intercourse.

The Irish Blood Transfusion Society will define its future policy for MSM donations next month following this week's conference, before submitting it for approval to the Department of Health in June.


While Dr Murphy does not anticipate that a reduction of the deferral to one or five years would lead to any discernible expansion of the donor base, he believes that the risk of HIV transmission through blood transfusion would continue to be negligible.

HIV epidemic
The effective blood donation ban for sexually active gay men has been in place since the mid-1980s, and was an attempt to reduce the risk of the emergent HIV epidemic tainting blood reserves.

Dr Murphy told The Irish Times that he believes his organisation will recommend the reduction of the deferral, most likely to five years with scope for further reduction in future, and that this policy will be accepted by the Department of Health next month.

“It’s going to be clear at the end, that moving to a one-year ban from a lifetime ban does not increase the risk of HIV for blood recipients. If that’s our major concern, then we’re fine,” he said.

He continued: "I don't think the department is going to take a separate view from anything we say. Leo Varadkar himself said that he was in favour of a one year ban and that he would consult with the department around that.

“If reducing the ban without increased risk to patients actually improves the perception among young gay men of their inclusivity in society that is a very strong good and something we should strive to achieve.”

Powerful message
The conference also heard representations from general practitioner and LGBT rights campaigner Dr Des Crowley who said the reduction or total removal of the deferral would send a powerful message to the community.

“The removal of this ban and replacing it with a four month deferral based on a change of partner and high-risk sexual behaviour sends a clear, powerful message to all LGBT persons, and in particular to younger LGBT persons struggling to accept their sexual orientation and living with the stigma that still prevails despite all the advancements in gay rights over recent years,” he said.

Dr Crowley went on to reference the current situation whereby heterosexual males and females potentially practicing unsafe sex with multiple partners can donate blood, whereas known HIV negative gay men who are in a long-term monogamous relationship, are prohibited from doing so.

Negligible risk
Delegates witnessed presentations from UK, Australian and Canadian health experts, all of whose countries have scrapped lifetime deferrals for MSM donors over recent decades.

Studies in each of these jurisdictions recorded a continued negligible risk for transmission of HIV, through donated blood supplies even after MSM deferrals were reduced to either one or five years.

MSM individuals are placed in the highest risk category for blood donors in Ireland alongside intravenous drug users and those with Hepatitis.

There was a broad acknowledgment among experts who spoke at Thursday’s conference that MSM individuals remain a high-risk group. Notes of caution were sounded that the country remains wary of potential risks to blood reserves following the Hepatitis C scandal of the 1990s.