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Red Cross recommends no change to blood donation policy
There is as yet no convincing evidence that men who have sex with men pose a greater risk of transmitting HIV via blood donations, according to a report issued by Red Cross Flanders yesterday. However at the same time, more research is needed before a strong case can be made for removing the ban on giving blood.
Belgium currently operates a lifelong ban on blood donations from men who have ever had sex with other men (MSM). Scientists have always placed the emphasis on behaviour rather than identity and do not use terms like “homosexual” or “gay”. For example, men who might identify as gay but have never had sex with men and gay women are not banned from giving blood.
At the request of federal health minister Maggie De Block, the Red Cross carried out what it describes as the largest and most systematic review of the scientific evidence on this controversial question, going over nearly 19,000 journal articles from five scientific databases, looking for an answer to the question: “Is there a heightened risk of infections being transmitted via transfusion if MSM men in western countries are active blood donors?”
According to the Red Cross, only three articles suggested a link between MSM donations and HIV transmission but none showed that MSM blood is as safe as other donations, giving no support to the idea of changing the policy.
Belgium is one of the few western countries, together with the US and the Netherlands, to ban MSMs for life. Canada has a five-year exclusion from the time of last sexual contact, while Britain and Australia have a one-year ban. Some countries, such as Spain and Italy, have no exclusion at all.
The Belgian ban, the Red Cross explained, is based on four principles: behaviour rather than orientation; the higher incidence of HIV infection among MSMs; the right of the patient to safe blood; the cautionary principle in public health, which states that every risk should be minimised as far as possible, even if the risk is not proven.
The Red Cross said that, as its study does not provide proof of risks or a lack of a risk, it is unable to advise health minister De Block about maintaining the exclusion. “The final decision lies with the minister and the Health High Council,” it said.