Time to rethink ban on gay men donating blood
Health authorities must strike a careful balance between safety of an essential service and public benefit of updating the rules
The Red Cross issued an urgent appeal recently for donors to help meet a serious shortage of blood supplies. Happily, a surge in donors soon solved the problem – until the next time. A sense of caution, rather than urgency, about expanding the pool of donors helps ensure there will be a next time. Blood safety is paramount, but the risks need to be kept in proportion and informed by science and epidemiology.
A month after the Red Cross appeal, its blood transfusion service said it was looking into the ban on gay men giving blood. An expert panel was reviewing policy responses to personal questions put to donors in a health-check questionnaire. This followed a call by a Christian student group for the ban to be eased, in keeping with overseas trends, because HIV infections were due mostly to unsafe sex rather than gender of sexual partners. The service’s response reflects a conservative approach as well as the importance of safety. Chief executive and medical director Dr Lee Cheuk-kwong said it had noted overseas policy changes. They include the US Food and Drug Administration’s response to reduced HIV transmission rates from blood transfusions. More than a year ago, it recommended reducing a 30-year-old indefinite ban on donations by men who had sex with men to 12 months since the last such sexual contact.
The obvious question for Hong Kong – why take the risk at all – is related to structural changes in the donor pool. Lee said the fall-off in donations in March-April because of the overlap with the flu season was steeper than usual, and could have been aggravated by casual factors such as weather and public holidays. With 32 donors per 1,000 people, Hong Kong is close to the world standard for a high-income area of 33.1. But the Red Cross also says a decrease in collections and increase in demand for transfusions is to be expected due to an ageing population and a change in the secondary school/ university academic structure, which means secondary six students leave school early in the second term to prepare for exams and many fewer participate in blood donation.
Health authorities must strike a careful balance between safety of an essential service and public benefit of updating the rules.