Bad blood

With the recent blood drive on campus, Michael O’Sullivan looks at why some people will never have the option to donate.

The Irish Blood Transfusion Service is famed for its well-known and much lauded Give Blood campaign, with a strong response by the Irish public nationwide. The response to the campaign in Belfield is no different, and the frequent campus visits made by the service show just how well the message has permeated into the minds of students.

But their visits are never without controversy. With one of the largest LGBT societies in Europe, UCD students have the same issue with blood donations every time the Give Blood campaign arrives on campus.

Since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, the LGBT movement has come on in leaps and bounds, with the recent advent of civil partnerships heralding a new era for the group. One area in which there has been no advancement however, is blood donation. As the rules stand at the moment, a man who has ever had sexual contact with another man at any point in his life can never donate blood. Understandably, this is a cause of upset for many within the LGBT community, especially in UCD.

Auditor of UCD LGBT, Jack Carolan, is one of many who have been affected by the rule: “If given the opportunity I would definitely donate blood. Every member of my family donates blood because, as a collective family, we all have a rare blood type. Unfortunately this rule means I cannot.”

This particular policy holds some emotional weight within the LGBT community, as HIV and AIDS were first prevalent amongst their population and they were heavily persecuted for it. The stigma attached to contracting blood-borne diseases such as HIV/AIDS has dissipated, but never truly disappeared. As a result, many LGBT people see the rule that prevents them from donating blood as an extension of the persecution they suffered throughout the 1980’s.

According to Carolan, “You could also argue that a heterosexual person who is awfully promiscuous would be a far greater risk to receive a blood donation from than a person who has only had sex with a man once or even someone who is in a monogamous relationship.”

The Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) is largely recognised as an embodiment of the selflessness of people, but by excluding a certain group of the population from assisting in their cause, are they going against their own agenda and hampering themselves in the process?

Marketing Director for the IBTS, Sarah McLoughlin, says, “The blood supply from today stands at an average of 6 to 7 days which is where we, ideally, would like to be on any given day, on any given blood group. Currently, B- is quite low, with only a 3 day supply.”

When the supply for certain blood groups are low, the IBTS targets their donors with that blood type via various tele-marketing campaigns in an attempt to increase their supply. When asked if the inclusion of the currently banned gay population would help to alleviate the deficits the service sometimes suffers, Ms McLoughlin claims that, “considering there’s no research, I can’t actually answer that question.”

Therein lays the rub for many. There is a lack of evidence on both sides as to what a repeal of the current ban would actually mean. Very few countries have carried out research in the area, and the lack of information surrounding the issue is fuelling exasperation and frustration.

There may be a ray of light here, however, as the UK may now serve as a guinea pig of sorts. The country has recently repealed its permanent ban to a ban on any man who has had sexual contact with another man within a year prior to donating. As it is a new policy, the full effects of the change may not come to light for quite some time.

Not all people are in agreement with the UK’s repeal, however. The IBTS reviewed its current policy on the ban after the UK repealed their law, but didn’t change their ruling. Dr Ian Franklin, of the IBTS medical board, believes the repeal in the UK was premature. “Well we very carefully looked through those and on reading their report, we felt that their decision to go for one year was not based on their own evidence, let alone any other.” He says.

He claims that the UK effectively jumped the gun in their repealing their deferral or ban, and that the effects of this change may not become apparent until further down the line. That is not to say however, that they are not looking to change.

“What we’re doing is we are actually working with a couple of the other countries who currently have a lifelong deferral or ban, like the Netherlands and also the USA.”

It is Franklin’s belief that the ban will be repealed at some point, but not until there is evidence to prove that donations from gay men will be completely safe for use. He believes: “I would be foolish to think that a permanent deferral can be indefinitely justified.”

The safety of the blood donated is always the main priority of the IBTS, as they are required by EU law to hold safety to the highest standards. “The EU directive does require that all necessary measures are taken to safeguard the health of individuals who receive the blood.”

The main reason for the current state of affairs therefore, is that the IBTS doesn’t feel they can completely guarantee the safety of their blood with the evidence currently available to them. Blood can only be stored for up to 35 days, and because some blood-borne diseases take up to six months to show up on tests, they cannot store blood for long enough to completely guarantee its safety.

But many within the LGBT community would argue that to exclude an entire group from donating is discriminatory at best, and highly prejudicial at worst. The IBTS is looking towards change, but it may take a significant amount of time for this change to come about.

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