The blood deferral period for men who have had sex with other men has been reduced from 12 months to just three months today.
Sex workers and those who have lived in a country with the widespread presence of HIV infection have also had their deferral periods reduced to three months.
The New Zealand Blood Service says the changes are in line with other countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Auckland Pride director Max Tweedie says the changes are long overdue.
“Now [NZBS] is at that perfect position where it’s balancing risk but also ensuring that rules around blood donation don’t discriminate against our community,” he said.
“I’m very, very happy about today’s announcement.”
Blood cannot be donated for three months after any anal or oral sex between two men, with or without a condom, or after last taking the HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
People living with HIV, even if they are on antiretroviral treatment and have an
undetectable viral load cannot give blood.
Those with hepatitis B or hepatitis C, even if successful treatment or those who have injected drugs not prescribed by a doctor or health professional also cannot give blood.
Sexual partners of any of these people will be deferred for three months.
New Zealand Aids Foundation Fellow and University of Auckland’s Dr Peter Saxton says it is “absolutely” the right decision for NZBS to make.
“It harmonises our policy that we normally benchmark ourselves against.
“Importantly, it follows the international evidence that reducing the deferral won’t increase the risk to blood recipients.”
While today’s announcement was great, Tweedie says the focus should be shifted from discriminating against gay and bisexual men giving blood and trying to end the transmission of HIV.
“The solution here isn’t necessarily changing blood rules but rather, investing in ending an epidemic for the Rainbow Community that has lasted for almost now 40 years,” he said.
“We have a hell of a lot of work to ensure that our focus necessarily isn’t on changing rules but ending an epidemic.”
NZBS’ behavioural donor eligibility is effective from today and was last reviewed by an independent expert panel in 2014.
As part of the previous review, it was recommended the criteria should be reviewed when there was information which might affect future decisions.
All current scientific research shows a three-month deferral allows current testing systems to safely accommodate the window between a virus being contacted and it being detectable, NZBS says.
The most recent safety data, which has been around 18-months, is out of the UK and Saxton says the NZBS has acted quickly on changing the deferral period.
He says being deferred or not being allowed to donate blood as a homosexual can be stigmatising and can fuel inaccurate stereotypes.
“No change can come soon enough for this group, and I think [it’s] really important we look closely at the evidence and move as quickly as we can,” he said.
NZBS took its proposal directly to Medsafe, which agreed and approved the change of deferral periods from 12 months to three.
The changes are only related to cisgendered individuals – people who identify with the biological sex they were assigned when they were born.
NZBS has a separate work programme aiming to ensure constant and appropriate criteria for transgender and non-binary individuals, Saxton says.
The service is a not-for-profit Crown entity responsible for the collection, processing, testing, storage, and distribution of all blood and blood products in New Zealand.
It relies on voluntary and non-remunerated blood donations in order to provide a constant supply of blood and blood products used by health services.