Society needs to have a discussion on the balance between the stigmatising of men who have sex with men, and the risks involved in moving to a one-year prohibition on taking blood from them.
That is the view of the medical director of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service Dr William Murphy, who has said the risk associated with moving from the current life ban on taking blood from gay and bisexual men, to taking blood from men who had not had sex with men for a year, was extremely small.
But Dr Murphy’s personal point of view was that moving to a situation where donations would be accepted from gay and bisexual men if they had not had sex with men for five years, might be a way forward.
Dr Murphy said the current lifetime ban had been introduced in the wake of the discovery of HIV, because testing, knowledge and treatment of HIV was not as advanced as it is now. In current practice he said the “window” of possibility in which an infected person might not test accurately was just one week.
The potential risk this window posed to recipients of blood was very small, at just one in 20 million. Dr Murphy said countries such as Sweden, Canada, the UK and the US had engaged in a debate about the risks and the level of state discrimination involved. They had moved or in some cases were very likely to move to a one-year ban.
He said it was true that the transfusion service sometimes imported blood from jurisdictions where the rules governing men who have sex with men were not as stringent as those in the Republic.
This happens in cases, for example, where blood is needed urgently for a person of a rare blood group and the transfusion service here has insufficient supplies.
Rare blood groups
Dr Murphy said the policy was not to expose vulnerable patients of rare blood groups to a greater risk. But in some circumstances “the risk profile changes” for someone who urgently needs blood.
Dr Murphy said his feelings “as a human” were separate to his role as medical director whose responsibility was the safety of the blood recipient. He said his job dictated he consider whether moving to a one-year ban would make blood safer for recipients, and he did not see how this could be.
He said haemophiliacs and others who received regular supplies of blood were concerned with the possibility of other “emerging infections” which are unknown at the time of blood donation, but which may manifest themselves in time.
He said this had happened before in relation to the HIV virus.
He personally thought a possible way forward might be a prohibition on accepting blood from men who had had sex with men in the last five years.
But he said he recognised this could create difficulties in terms of a “credibility factor” with gay and bisexual men.
Such men may conclude the ban was unnecessarily long, he said, and more research on this credibility factor was needed.
However, Tiernan Brady of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network said the central point was that the lifetime ban on blood donations from men who had sex with men was in response to the HIV outbreak more than 30 years ago.
He said the science now indicated clearly that a lifetime ban was no longer necessary or realistic
. Given the massive stigma it brought about, it should be dropped.
But he said the introduction of a five-year ban on the basis of an unknown potential infection was a new ban and a new form of discrimination which was possibly worse than the original.
“To introduce a five-year ban on the basis of unforeseen conditions and making the presumption that gay and bisexual men will be more susceptible to unforeseen conditions would be to brand a minority of the population,” he said.
It would be “an incredibly severe, negative stigmatisation”.