Hong Kong Red Cross reviews blood donor policy for men who abstain from gay sex for a year

Possible change follows call last week for current permanent ban on gay male donors to be eased

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 June, 2017, 11:13pm

The Hong Kong Red Cross will consider relaxing its stringent blood donation rules and allowing gay men who do not have sex for a year to donate to its centres.

The breakthrough was revealed in a written response to questions from health sector lawmaker Dr Joseph Lee Kok-long on Wednesday. Last week, the organisation’s Blood Transfusion Service (BTS) said it was considering a policy change after a Christian student group called for the current ban on gay men to be eased.

The BTS explained on Wednesday it had to implement stringent measures to screen blood donors because there were still limitations in testing technology and diseases could thus go undetected especially during early stages of infection.

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But it noted that many countries including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland and Canada had already amended screening policies towards gay donors.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said the BTS was “considering the option of relaxing the blood donation policy for men who have sex with men by changing the restriction from permanent deferral to one-year deferral”.

The BTS, managed by the Hospital Authority, is the sole public institution supplying blood to hospitals, both public and private.

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Ko said the BTS had started to “discuss the option and exchange views with doctors and patient groups as well as non-profit organisations providing support services for patients with Aids”.

The BTS did not say whether a policy change would account for protected or unprotected gay sex.

Men who have sex with men are still considered high risk as far as contracting HIV, compared with other groups
Red Cross spokesman

Under the current policy, prospective donors must fill out a health questionnaire, which asks whether male donors have engaged in male-to-male sex. Those who answer affirmatively are “permanently deferred” or effectively screened out.

“Men who have sex with men (MSM) are still considered high risk as far as contracting HIV, compared with other groups, such as gay women and promiscuous heterosexual people,” a Red Cross spokesman said.

“We have noticed that there are changes in the blood donation eligibility criteria relating to MSM in a few countries. With blood safety being our first and foremost consideration, we will review or update the donor selection guidelines as and when appropriate.”

Hong Kong Patients’ Voices chairman Alex Lam Chi-yau said the review represented a step in the right direction, claiming the current policy was unfair and unjustifiable.

“Why is it that heterosexual sex is perfectly safe, and sex between men is absolutely unsafe?” he asked. “If there has to be a deferral specifically targeting MSM, there must be solid justification based on medical science, ethics and morality.”

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Professor Joseph Lau Tak-fai, director of Chinese University’s Centre for Health Behaviours Research, said the issue was one that balanced risk with human rights.

“Statistically, MSM have more high-risk sexual behaviours than other groups, but not all MSM behave this way,” he said. “Therefore, a permanent deferral from blood donation against all MSM is obviously against basic principles of human rights.”

“The focus should instead be on those who have engaged in unsafe sexual conduct, regardless of their sexual orientation.”