One in three Australians will need donated blood in their lifetime. Its uses range from treating cancer patients to severe bouts of the flu, and we’re told it’s always in short supply. This month the Australian Red Cross estimates an additional 3000 donations are needed to fill the demand.
Yet when Adam Rustov, a 22-year-old Melbourne man recently went to a Red Cross Blood Centre wishing to donate blood, he was denied the opportunity to do so.
“I was filling out the paperwork before the donation started and read some questions about HIV, hepatitis and other diseases,” 22-year-old Adam Rustov told the Yarra Reporter.
“I soon realised that any gay man who had been sexually active in the last 12 months couldn’t donate blood,” Mr Rustov said. “So I got up, made an excuse that I wasn’t feeling well and walked out. I felt second-rate. I was trying to do a good thing and I felt inferior,” he said.
Mr Rustov’s experience is all too common and despite the need for blood, willing donors are being turned away.
The Australian Red Cross in late May 2017 issued an urgent SOS for type-O blood donors as stores were at critically low levels heading into winter. Today, its home page has a large banner reading ‘3000 more blood donations needed in July’.
The 12 month exclusion period is not unique to Australia and also exists in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. However, Italy, Poland and Russia are among the European countries that don’t impose restrictions on gay and bisexual blood donations.
Although gay men make up 68% of those infected with HIV, as opposed to an estimated 20% of heterosexual couples, 92% of those with HIV are receiving antiretroviral treatment and have an undetectable viral load, which reduces transmission of HIV to HIV-negative people by 92-96% and is a key treatment goal.
In 2012, the Australian Red Cross commissioned an independent review of Australian blood donor deferral periods. Its review recommended a reduction in the donation exclusion period from 12 months to six months.
Colin Batrouney is the Director of Policy at the Victorian AIDS Council (VAC), an organisation that aims to improve the health outcomes for gender and sexually diverse communities.
“We absolutely agreed with the panel recommendation in 2012 to reduce the exclusion period,” Mr Batrouney said.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in Australia is tasked with the supply, import, export and manufacturing of therapeutic goods. Blood is classified as a therapeutic good.
The TGA has the ultimate say when it comes to changing the donation exclusion period and chose not to accept the Red Cross’ expert review in 2012 and the exclusion period remains at 12 months.
The TGA could not be reached for comment, but Mr Batrouney said, “We are disappointed in the TGA. It hasn’t justified its position. TGA has rejected the recommendations of the review, without providing a reason why”.
In 2014, the 20th annual AIDS conference was held in Melbourne and served as an opportunity for the Victorian AIDS Council to bring further attention to this issue.
Mr Batrouney and members of the VAC led a demonstration through the streets of Melbourne, with the hope of agitating change and drawing attention to their plight.
“This issue is one that the VAC has always considered important and will continue to see as important until there is change,” Mr Batrouney said.
With the Australian Red Cross continually seeking to recruit new donors, many healthy gay and bisexual men are prohibited from being blood donors due to bureaucracy being misaligned with scientific evidence.
“The science is clear to see. It isn’t an unsafe practice for gay men to donate blood. Those in charge of making change are well behind the scientific facts that are undisputed and unambiguous,” Mr Batrouney said.
“We will continue to fight for the rights of gay men on this issue. It’s a discriminatory practice and we must stand up to it,” Mr Batrouney said.
If one in three Australians will one day require blood, you’re almost guaranteed to know someone in need. The science and statistical data has shown that the current exclusionary periods do not reduce the risk of unwanted infection. The only losers here are Australians in need of blood and the men willing to help them.
Written by Nicholas Nakos