Calls to end 'outdated' ban as Aussie blood supplies drop to dangerous levels

Thousands of Aussies are waiting to donate, but the law prohibits them.

With the Red Cross desperately appealing for blood donors as demand for certain types skyrockets to the "highest level in a decade", calls are once again mounting to bring an end to "outdated" laws prohibiting tens of thousands of Aussies from contributing.

Stocks of 'O' blood types have sunk across the country to dangerously low levels — their lowest point in a year in fact, and according to Lifeblood, an extra 500 donations of O positive and O negative blood are needed every single day for the next fortnight just to meet demand.

Though many Aussies have demonstrated a willingness to donate, sexually active gay and bisexual men are still considered unsuitable candidates in the eyes of the law, irrespective of how fit or healthy they are.

Sydney man Yahn Monaghan.
Sydney man Yahn Monaghan has the rarest blood type, but isn't able to donate any, though he'd love to. Source: Supplied / Getty.

'Archaic' laws date back to 1980s

Restrictions for gay and bisexual men were introduced in the country in the '80s at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with concerns the disease would be transferred through donors.

But Australia has one of the lowest rates of HIV transmissions in the world, and the nation has accomplished an incredible 57 per cent reduction in new HIV cases among gay and bisexual men since 2013, according to 2022 data from UNSW's Sydney’s Kirby Institute. The same research also revealed that heterosexuals also account for 30 per cent of all new HIV transmissions.

In England, for the first time in a decade, the number of new HIV diagnoses among heterosexuals was higher than for gay and bisexual men, according to figures from the UK Health Security Agency.

Sydney man Yahn Monaghan, who has one of the rarest blood types on the planet, told Yahoo News Australia that he's incensed by the "outdated" and "archaic" laws that restrict gay and bisexual men from donating.

"Donating blood as a queer person is a hoop-jumping, checklist-drowning and demeaning process to go through, rooted in homophobia and miseducation — I'm baffled this is still a concern," he said.

"It's homophobic and queerphobic. Plain and simple. This standard can no longer be veiled under the guise of 'minority' or 'process' reasons. The Brits can now donate, despite previous concerns over mad cow disease."

A generic image of a man giving blood.
Most heterosexuals are "waved through" the donation process, even if they engage in risky sexual activity. Source: Getty.

'Outdated policy is not good enough'

Mr Monaghan implored the government to overhaul current restrictions in place, which he argues no longer reflect the times we live in.

"To still be held to such an outdated 'standard' in today's day and age is just simply not good enough. Especially when the entire process is to simply help someone," he said.

"My blood type is AB-, the rarest blood type, I would love to donate. It wouldn't make a dent in my lifestyle."

Overwhelming majority of gay men don't, and will never, have HIV

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Let Us Give campaign spokesperson Thomas Buxereau said the simple fact remains — which is reflected in statistics — that the vast majority of gay men don't, and won't ever contract HIV.

"The current ban on gay blood donation is outdated because the overwhelming majority of gay men do not, and will never, have HIV, and are therefore safe to give blood," he told Yahoo. "Meanwhile, most heterosexuals are waved through even if they engage in risky sexual activity.

"This is why we want the gay blood ban replaced by a new policy of individual risk assessment that screens all donors, gay and straight, for risky sexual activity rather than the gender of their sexual partner.

"Studies that led to the adoption of individual risk assessment in other countries have concluded that, with HIV infection rates declining among gay men, the risk associated with lifting the gay ban and adopting individual risk assessment is so low as to be 'not meaningful'."

For some officials the problem seems to be "an unfounded fear that community prejudice will be stirred up if the gay blood ban is lifted", rather than any prejudices of their own, Mr Buxerau explained.

"However, there has been no discernible backlash in other countries that have adopted individual risk assessment and we don't believe there will be in Australia either.

"Individual risk assessment makes sense because it opens up a new source of safe blood for those in need and removes discrimination from blood donation."

Lifeblood 'wants change too'

A spokesperson for Lifeblood, the blood donor operation of the Red Cross, told Yahoo News Australia the organisation is campaigning for change, but in order to amend laws around blood work, both the federal and state governments will have to approve any propositions.

"We know that the community wants to see change on these blood donation rules, and Lifeblood wants change too, which is why we’ve been working as a priority to create a solution that we believe is the most inclusive option for Australia," the spokesperson told Yahoo.

"In May, 2023 our application to have rules around sexual activity removed for plasma donations was approved by the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration]. This means most gay and bisexual men would be able to donate plasma, without any wait period at all.

"CSL (an Australian biotechnology company) is supportive of the ‘plasma pathway’ and we’re working with them and other stakeholders including the NBA and TGA to implement these changes. The ‘plasma pathway’ will give the greatest number of gay and bisexual men the opportunity to donate plasma; more than any other approaches here or abroad."

Decisions about blood safety rules are made by the TGA and Australian governments following consideration of the information, data and evidence submitted by Lifeblood.

"The most up to date Australian data (which shows HIV rates in Australia have fallen, although majority of new infections are still diagnosed in men who have sex with men) is required for a recommendation and would be a key part of a potential TGA submission for individual risk assessment, giving us the best opportunity for a successful submission," the spokesperson said.

"Because blood donation impacts many thousands of lives, any changes to blood safety rules takes time and are not made in response to low blood stocks.

We appreciate the community’s patience as we go through this process, and we hope to have more to say soon. In the meantime, you can read more about the plasma pathway and research program on our website."

Lifeblood said the organisation "already had an incredible response" to the call-out earlier this week and "many of our centres are now well booked".

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