Relaxed rules to allow gay men in Hong Kong to donate blood
Under the current policy those who declare they have engaged in male-to-male sex are ‘permanently deferred’ from donation
Men who have not had sex with other men in the past 12 months will be able to donate blood starting from late this month, the Hong Kong Red Cross has announced.
The new donation rules will officially come into effect on September 25 as the organisation’s blood transfusion service (BTS) said the change was based on scientific evidence and the experiences of other countries.
Dr Lee Cheuk-kwong, chief executive and medical director of the BTS, said foreign data had shown the risk of spreading blood-borne diseases did not increase after allowing donations from men who have sex with men (MSM) if they had stopped the sexual activity in the past 12 months.
“Previous studies showed that those men would be more honest in answering health assessment questions [after the change of policy],” said Lee. “The risk could be further reduced.”
Under the current policy, prospective donors need to fill in a health questionnaire which covers areas such as medical conditions, travel history and lifestyle habits. Those who declare they have engaged in male-to-male sex are currently “permanently deferred” from donation, but the policy would be relaxed under the new arrangement.
The BTS studied the practices of other developed countries before coming to the decision. Countries such as France, Britain, the United States and Australia have allowed MSM to donate blood as long as they had not had male-to-male sex in the past 12 months. The period of limiting same-sex sexual activity was even shortened to six months in Japan.
Apart from relying on honest declarations from the men, Lee said the nucleic acid test, a test used since 2007 to check whether donated blood contained any blood-borne diseases, had shortened the window needed to test for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to six days.
In the past, older tests needed the person to be infected for 22 days or longer to detect HIV.
“We need to rely on prospective donors to make an honest declaration … if not there could be risks,” said Lee.
Lee expected there would be no dramatic increase in donors after the change in policy, based on Britain’s experience.
The number of blood bags collected from donation plunged by 10 per cent between June to August this year, compared with the same period last year.
The BTS made an urgent appeal on Thursday to the public to support blood donation as current inventories have fallen to an “alarming level”, three days after health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee made the same plea. Service hours of four donor centres will be extended from Friday to Sunday to collect more blood.
Non-government charity Aids Concern said it was pleased to see the lifetime ban on blood donation for MSM was to be scrapped. The group described it to as “a step forward” but called for a further reduction of the limit.
Hong Kong Patients’ Voices chairman Alex Lam Chi-yau said he would not be worried about the new policy as long as there was honest declaration and effective blood tests.
“What matters most is whether the donor has been involved in safe sex, which is a concern for both homosexual and heterosexual people,” said Lam.
There are no restrictions on women who have sex with women.