BY CONNOR BAMFORDEdwin Poots pictured giving blood during Northern Ireland's Blood Donor Week June 2011. Picture: Michael Cooper. DUP Photos – Flickr
In June 2012, health minister Edwin Poots announced that he would not lift the ban on blood donation from men who have sex with men (MSM). The rest of the UK, however, simply requires that one year has passed since last ‘at-risk’ contact.
Such policies exist to limit the risk of infection of blood-borne viruses, like HIV, coming from the blood transfusion service. Poots summarised his stance on the matter as, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” But is this attitude hindering the already blood-strapped transfusion service? In 2009/10, there were 63,241 blood donations in NI, a mere 6% of eligible donors in the country. Resultantly, we currently rely heavily on imported donations from the rest of the UK.
The transfer of HIV and AIDS is one of the main issues in Mr Poots’ decision. According to Avert, the HIV and AIDS charity, about a quarter of people living with HIV are unaware of their condition, with men who have sex with men accounting for over half of HIV cases. A primary route of new infection is through blood-blood contact, like transfusions. A major problem is the presence of a ‘window period’ where it cannot be determined through testing if someone is infected. In the 1980s, prior to the development of any tests, infection could not be detected at all, hence a blanket ban on MSM blood. Recent advances have seen this window decreased to a year at most. The charity also noted between 1999 and 2011, heterosexual contact accounted for the majority of new HIV diagnoses.
Mr Poots stated that “people who engage in high risk sexual behaviour…should be excluded from giving blood”. The minister’s statement does not reflect the state of the current science which calls for a one-year ban at most. For now, Northern Ireland must simply ‘make do’ as it remains to be seen if the policy will change in future.