A Rough Week for the Irish Blood Transfusion Service

On Monday the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) revealed that the non-invasive method it had been using to test potential donors for anaemia was unreliable and “gives inaccurate results in some individuals with anaemia”. This was particularly embarrassing since the IBTS had not long ago been touting being the first national transfusion service to adopt this method.

As a result of the problem with the anaemia tests the IBTS stopped taking donations from women who have donated in the last 18 months while this faulty screening procedure was being used. They predicted a drop in donations which will reduce the blood supply by about a quarter, so they’re appealing to men to donate.

Of course, if need be they can import blood products from other countries. Incidentally, those other countries include “jurisdictions where the rules governing men who have sex with men [are] not as stringent as those in the Republic.”

Speaking of those rules, an article from November 8th indicated that, after more than a year of research and discussion, the IBTS is set to recommend removing the lifetime ban on donation by gay and bisexual men. The likely recommendation will be for a one-year deferral from the date of last sexual contact with another man, a policy adopted by an increasing number of other countries around the world.

The IBTS Board was supposed to meet on Monday to finalise its recommendations to the Department of Health, and I was looking forward to the official confirmation of what they’d recommend. Unfortunately that decision, if it was made, has been overshadowed by the anaemia screening issue.

I’m still hoping for an announcement in the next few months, if not sooner, about a revised policy. Then again, with the election looming, there’s a chance that the Government will choose to put it off indefinitely. It’s not going to be a vote winner, and might even cause a bit of controversy, the kind of thing that a troubled government doesn’t want to encourage in an election season.

One further wrinkle is Tomás Heneghan’s ongoing case against the IBTS and the Department of Health. Heneghan, a gay man, is arguing that the lifetime ban on donation by sexually active gay or bisexual men is a breach of the European Convention of Human Rights.

It’s unclear what a change in policy might mean for the case, but the pressure of the court action may provide motivation for the Government to make a decision sooner rather than later. A hearing in the High Court had been scheduled for November 17, but was continued to the 24th. I’ll be keeping a close eye on that case as it proceeds.

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