What chills me most about the UK’s lifting of the ban on gay men donating blood is not the prejudice that lies behind such a ban, though that is shocking enough; it’s the fact that the UK does not appear to have much confidence in its health services. Their ’12 month deferral period’ instead of an outright ban does little to assuage any fear people may have.
If the blood transfusion services are not able to screen blood that may be contaminated with HIV and other blood-borne viruses, why just ban gay men from donating blood? What about people who face other sexual risks? And what about people who face non-sexual risks, for example, those who receive health care or cosmetic services that may not be 100% safe?
Another question that this issue raises is about how well the blood transfusion service can assess risk if they will not allow a donor to donate blood even if they are practicing safe sex. Are these health professionals telling us that safe sex is not really safe, or that it’s not safe enough? Or are they just telling us that they can’t really guarantee the safety of the blood? Are the donors even safe?
I raise these questions because there is always lot of dithering about blood-borne risks for HIV transmission, especially relative to sexual risks. During the Football World Cup in South Africa last year, the media drooled over estimations of how many sex workers would be operating in the various cities where matches were being played, how many customers they would have and various other salacious irrelevance.
But nothing was mentioned about the risks people could face if they went to a dental clinic, a hospital, a tattoo parlor or even a hairdressing salon. Half a million people descended on a few South African cities, the country with the highest number of HIV positive people in the world, and no mention was made of the most serious HIV risks that exist.
Of course, many people from Western countries travelling to African countries get advice from guide books, embassies, travel shops and travel agencies. But these don’t usually extend to cosmetic services. Should the UK also ban blood donations from foreigners, travellers, migrant workers and others suspected of falling into one of these groups? Or perhaps they would settle for a 12 month deferral period for them, too?
One commentator points out that HIV is not purely transmitted by men having sex with men. This is true, a small percentage of people infected in the UK are not gay and/or not male. And a large percentage are infected through intravenous drug use. But more importantly, HIV is not purely transmitted through sex; it is not just a sexually transmitted disease.
HIV risk is not confined to sexual risk. And while health and cosmetic services in Western countries are far less likely to use contaminated instruments now, compared to in the 1980s, the very fact that people still see HIV as an STD is worrying. It means that they will not recognize serious risks when faced with them, nor will they know how to avoid them.
Health providers have a duty to inform people fully about sexual and non-sexual risks and how to avoid them. A selective ban, partial or otherwise, on those felt to be ‘most at risk’ represents a failure to give people comprehensive advice about all types of risk and leads to a piecemeal and, as it happens, stigmatizing health policy.