This month reporter Rosalind Brabner looks at why even though ever since 1999 the rapid increase in HIV has been caused by heterosexually acquired infections, gay men are still denied the right to give blood.
I’m not completely sure Winchester was prepared for the conversation my four friends and I was about to have. Speaking in our usual loud cackles to one another about our recent indiscretions, my friend Rob mentioned his latest embarrassing moment.
He recalled how he was turned away from his local blood service unit because he was gay, “I was so upset, mainly because I felt embarrassed and like some diseased promiscuous homo”. What seemed to be a further kick in the teeth for Rob was the fact he only went because he was told by his Doctor that the AB rhesus positive blood type he had was very rare. And although it did give us fantastic material for the weekly piss takes, ‘So rob let me get this right, you’re a rare species of gay that’s unwanted?’ I thought it was an issue that deserved exploring.
NATIONAL BLOOD SERVICE
According to the National Blood Service the reason men who have sex with men are banned from giving blood is because they are considered the highest risk group despite the fact that since 1999 heterosexually acquired HIV became and has continued to be the main exposure category.
International HIV and AIDS charity, Advert state on their website that “the major component of the rapid increase in recent years has been heterosexually acquired infections… in 1999, for the first time, the rate of heterosexually acquired HIV diagnosis overtook the rate of diagnosis in men who have sex with men.”
TERRENCE HIGGINS TRUST
The UK’s largest HIV and sexual health charity, Terrence Higgins Trust support the National Blood Service’s policy claiming that it is “a public health issue, rather than one of homophobic discrimination”.
Speaking to Rob about the situation over coffee a couple of weeks later he explained in a little more detail what he felt could be discriminatory about the circumstance, “I completely understand the implications of taking blood from a gay man however I am regularly tested and I have never had unprotected sex. Apart of me thinks the notion that HIV is a ‘gay disease’ drives this policy.”
The Terrence Higgins Trust insists “HIV has never been a gay disease as anyone can contract it”. However the Trust does put forward statistics which reflect how much more likely it is for men who have sex with men to contract HIV than other groups. “Around 1 in 10 gay men in London are now living with HIV and 1 in 25 gay men in the rest of the country”. These statistics certainly make the link between HIV and gay men hard to ignore.
The trust explains that even though it is true heterosexual acquired HIV is on the increase homosexual men are still the highest risk group. The trust claims that of the 54% of new HIV diagnoses were through heterosexual sex 85% of them were contracted outside of the UK. In contrast the 84% of men who have sex with men who were diagnosed in 2005 probably acquired the disease in the UK.
What Rob I and find it hard to get our head around is if you know you haven’t got it, absolutely sure, if you’ve been tested on a regular basis and partake in safe sex then why can’t you give blood? Rob even argues that the blood is always tested before use, “They test the blood anyway! I just find it unfair and another form of prejudice, I don’t usually care about any gay issues. Nothing ever offends me or upsets me but this does for some reason, probably because I think that blood donation is such an important issue”.
AN INTERNATIONAL EPEDEMIC
This isn’t just a British issue; due to the world health organization’s advice gay blood is globally unwanted. South African journalist Andrew Barnes had a similar experience to Rob.
Having circled ‘yes’ to the question asking, ‘have you ever had sex with another man?’ Barnes was immediately informed by the nurse his blood was ‘unwanted’. Telling the ‘Cape Argus News’ Barnes said, “I was shocked…homosexual men are not the highest risk group (in South Africa). I don’t think they should have a blanket ban on gay men giving blood”.
In response to this issue The South African blood service’s medical director Arthur Bird acknowledged, “I accept totally that with these types of questionnaires and safety margins we have do cast a net. We accept that we sometimes sweep in safe donors unnecessarily, but that’s the nature of the beast”.
The situation is also the same in the United States. Despite The American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks and America’s Blood Centre’s making an official statement which read that the ban “is medically and scientifically unwarranted” and that “it does not appear rational to broadly differentiate sexual transmission via male to male sexual activity from that via heterosexual activity on scientific grounds”, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) announced in 2007 that gay men will continue to be denied the right to give blood.
The overwhelming contradiction of all the information is one of the most frustrating aspects to this topic. Until all statistics concerning the link between homosexual sex and HIV correlate with each other the issue of whether men who have sex with men can give blood will never be changed.
A NEW CARELESS VIEW
Last month GT columnist, Paul Thorn shared his shock at how his ‘young admirer’ had such little knowledge of HIV. Paul’s impression is that because the HIV/AIDS issue is not as substantial as it was 10 years ago people aren’t as aware of it, “It is perhaps a side affect of pharmaceuticals allowing us to manage the virus that young people seem to be less informed these days about HIV, what is safe and what isn’t.” Perhaps what is the main issue here is re-vamping available information on HIV prevention.
By providing a constant stream of information so people are aware of the dangers of un-protected sex enables the amount of HIV contractions to decrease. I believe it will be then and only then that gay men will be given the right to give blood.