Fears of “gay plague” persist when it comes to blood donation

One-year deferral for gay blood donors is ridiculous, unworkable and discriminatory

 

There is a saying that most gay men can have more sexual partners in a lunchtime than a straight man in a lifetime. When I heard the announcement from Minister for Health Simon Harris that he is accepting the Blood Transfusion Service (BTS) recommendation to move to a one-year deferral period for gay and bisexual men, this was the first thing that came into my head.

In operational terms, what this means is that gay and bisexual men will have to wait one year after their last sexual contact with another man in order to donate blood. Apart from being utterly ridiculous and impossible to police, the idea of a one-year deferral period for gay and bisexual men is downright discriminatory and does nothing to dispel the stigma and prejudice which still exists among mainstream society towards people who are HIV positive.

‘High risk’

The ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood was introduced in Ireland in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic as this sector was categorised as a “high risk” group for the transmission of HIV, the virus which can lead to AIDS. This policy fuelled homophobic behaviour in Ireland at the time and fed into the widespread belief that AIDS was a “gay plague”.

Blood has been screened for HIV in Ireland since 1986 and as such, there is no risk of HIV transmission through blood transfusions in this country. The fact also remains that sexual transmission of HIV has nothing to do with the social group a person identifies with but the sexual behaviour of an individual. Unprotected penetrative sex remains the most common route of HIV transmission via sexual contact between two people regardless of their sexual orientation. Therefore, if the Minister moves to a one-year deferral period in relation to blood donation, it should apply across the board.

Lip service

The announcement is pure lip service on behalf of a Government who, post-Marriage Equality, are keen to be seen to be removing the current inequality which exists in banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood. It is not enough to refer to similar policies in Northern Ireland and Britain in order to justify the BTS recommendation. The one-year deferral policy for gay and bisexual men sends out a clear message that MSM are sexually deviant and diseased. It harks back to the era of the “gay plague”, albeit subliminally, and does nothing to encourage individual responsibility regarding HIV and other sexually transmitted infections among mainstream society.

According to the most recent reports from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, STIs continue to rise in Ireland year on year, with the most commonly diagnosed infection being chlamydia. What we need are policies which encourage personal responsibility regarding sexual behaviour and not policies which scapegoat any one sector of society.

Derek J Byrne is an Irish Times reader

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