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Varadkar’s stance on gay blood donations will be closely watched

Minister for Health has said any decision on whether to lift outright ban on gay men donating blood will be made on scientific grounds

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar. “I won’t be allowing my own background or my sexual orientation to dictate the decisions I make,” he told Miriam O’Callaghan in January. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The relatively minor decision on whether to lift the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood has had an added dimension since Minister for Health Leo Varadkar revealed his own homosexuality.

Varadkar cited the imminent decision on blood donation policy as one of the factors underlying his decision to come out as a gay man last January.

“I just want people to know that whatever decisions are made on any issue I will make them according to what I believe is in the public interest. I won’t be allowing my own background or my sexual orientation to dictate the decisions I make,” he told Miriam O’Callaghan.

Deferral period

At the time, the Minister said he favoured the introduction of a one-year deferral period to replace the lifetime ban but said he would get medical opinion first.

The ruling of the European Court of Justice that banning gay men from giving blood may be justified where strictly necessary, and only if there are no alternatives for preventing the spread of infection, will add further to the debate. Notwithstanding his expressed view, Varadkar’s stance will be closely watched for any perceived favouring of gay issues. While he doesn’t see it as an equality issue, many in the gay community do.

Kicked to touch

So far, he has kicked to touch, by asking the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to carry out further research. No one would disagree with the Minister’s assertion the decision should be made on scientific grounds, but the outcome of such deliberations in other countries has varied greatly. Most western states still operate a lifetime ban, including France, whose policies were under scrutiny in the case before the court.

However, Britain switched to a one-year deferral period in 2011 and the US is to do so shortly.

Screening methods have improved a lot since lifetime bans were introduced during the Aids epidemic in the 1980s. Blood infected with HIV or hepatitis can now be detected as quickly as nine days and certainly within six months, depending on the test.

Irish gay men, like gay men in most other countries, have higher rates of HIV infection, accounting for just under half of new cases in 2013.

A nightmare scenario would see the emergence of some new disease, transmitted as HIV was, somehow being able to infect blood products as a result of a change in donation policy.

No politician would want that as their political epitaph.

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