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Discriminatory restrictions on blood donations should be changed

Ireland should follow the UK’s lead in changing blood donation rules so eligibility to donate is based on individual circumstances regarding travel, health and sexual behaviour, rather than gender or sexuality, Fine Gael TD and Senator have said.

Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Senator Jerry Buttimer today pointed out the UK recently changed their blood donation rules so that all donors, regardless of gender or sexuality, face the same questions and eligibility criteria.

These new rules replaced discriminatory restrictions on donations from gay and bisexual men, but men in Ireland are still subject to such discrimination.

Senator Buttimer said, “A lifelong ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men was introduced during the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and was only changed relatively recently in Ireland.

“This ban was reviewed by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) in 2016 in light of changes to deferral criteria in other countries. In 2017, due to data which showed no increase in the number of HIV positive blood donations since the change in policy, the lifelong ban was removed and replaced with a one-year deferral.

“Despite the removal of the lifelong ban, gay and bisexual men in Ireland still face overly restrictive rules on donating blood. Currently, a man who has had sex with another man in the past 12 months is not eligible to donate blood. Even if he has used a condom or is taking the HIV medication PrEP, once a man has had sex with a man in the last 12 months, he is automatically excluded.

“Our current rules are outdated, discriminatory and unfair. Neither women nor heterosexual men face the same level of scrutiny when they walk through the doors of a donation clinic – why should gay and bisexual men be subject to different rules than anyone else?

The rules must be based on an accurate assessment of each individual’s risk of infection, and not on sexuality or gender. The UK led the way on this issue as it introduced changes to the safety check form in June. Eligibility for donating across the UK is now based on personal circumstances on health, travel and sexual behaviours.

Fine Gael Spokesperson for Equality Deputy Jennifer Carroll MacNeill said“Not only do donors in the UK now face a fairer and more efficient screening process, these new rules are likely to result in an increase in blood donations.

“Now more than ever, we desperately need more blood donations. For the first time in years, the IBTS recently had to import blood in bulk from the UK due to increased demand and reduced supply. If we are asking our citizens to donate, then we need to ensure the opportunity is available to everyone and the process of doing so is fair and objective.

“Due to the change in UK donation rules, there is now a disparity between the UK and Irish eligibility criteria.

“Back in 2016, the IBTS looked at what other countries around the world were doing and introduced changes to progress Ireland’s regulations to be in line with our international counterparts. That was five years ago, and the time has now come to look to our international neighbours once again to advance our policies.

“Ireland has been a pioneer in leading the way internationally for LGBT rights, but we’re falling behind when it comes to this issue. The fact of the matter is quite simple – being able to donate blood in Ireland should not be based on your gender or your sexuality.

“We are already facing severe blood shortages, and we can’t wait any longer for progress on this issue. I understand that the IBTS has established an independent ‘Advisory Committee for Social Behaviours Review’ to review the evidence base for donor selection, deferral and exclusion. The Committee is due to conclude its work this month and submit its report to the IBTS.

“We are calling on Minister Stephen Donnelly to work with the IBTS to ensure that the Committee’s work is completed by the end of this month, and ultimately to bring about changes to ensure our rules are fair, safe and non-discriminatory,” Deputy Carroll MacNeill concluded.