New blood donation policies in Europe

In the last couple of weeks two more European countries have announced plans to change their blood donation policies for gay and bisexual men. The Netherlands has modified the lifetime ban on men who’ve had sex with men to a 12-month ban, while France is pursuing a multi-stage approach that should eventually arrive at a policy that will treat people equally regardless of the sex of their sexual partners.

Announcing the change in policy at the end of October, Dutch Minister of Health Edith Schippers made explicit that she was attempting to balance concerns about equality with the safety of the blood supply. Schippers added that her office will continue to investigate whether a shorter period could be adopted in the future.

Tanja Ineke, head of LGBT advocacy group COC Netherlands, criticized the new policy as “too little too late,” pointing out that the policy will still effectively exclude virtually all sexually active gay men and “is only of practical importance for bisexual men in long-term monogamous relationships with a woman.” COC has advocated for a policy similar to that recently adopted in Argentina which focuses on specific risk activities rather than risk groups.

France’s health minister, Marisol Touraine, also framed her announcement of the change in that country’s blood donation policy in terms of equality saying:

Giving one’s blood is an act of generosity and of civic responsibility that cannot be conditioned by sexual orientation. While respecting the absolute security of patients, it is a taboo, a discrimination that is being lifted today.

The new French policy will be enacted in two stages. Beginning in the Spring of 2016 the current lifetime ban on blood donation by men who’ve had sex with men will be reduced to a 12-month ban. However, men who have not been sexually active or have had sex with only one partner in the last 4 months with be able donate plasma, regardless of the sex of that partner.

In the second stage, the safety of the plasma donation policy will be evaluated after about 12 months (government months, so don’t hold your breath). If it’s found that the policy for plasma donations is sufficiently safe, the policy will be “gradually” extended to all blood donation. Currently men and women with opposite-sex sexual partners may donate blood if they have not been sexually active or have had sex with only one partner in the last 4 months.

Meanwhile an article from Monday’s Irish Independent pretty clearly tips us as to what path the Irish Government will take on updating the donation rules here. Unsurprisingly, Ireland will likely follow the Netherlands by reducing the lifetime ban on men who’ve had sex with men to a 12-month ban.

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has already indicated that he supported the change from a lifetime to a 12-month ban, but he asked for further review from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service before he would make a final decision. The IBTS is due to meet on Monday to finalise its recommendations.

Varadkar also said in January that he considers the donation policy “an issue of patient safety and medical science, not an equality issue.” Which is slightly odd, because if it wasn’t an equality issue nobody would be talking about it. What he really means, I think, is that even though he’s gay himself he’s not going to go overboard with pro-gay stuff if it’s not backed up by the science. Since the science seems pretty clearly to support screening by risk activity rather than risk group, I wonder if his aversion to being seen as too much of a gay advocate is leading him to be more cautious than he should be.

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