When blood is needed, why can’t we donate?

Australia’s blood donor policy is lagging behind


Only 3% of Australians currently give blood, yet there is a whole community of people who can’t donate.

In Australia, men and transgender women who have had sex with a man in the past three months can’t donate blood or plasma.

Jemma Falkenmire from Lifeblood, the branch of the Australian Red Cross that handles blood donations, says that this rule is to prevent HIV from entering the blood supply.

“Newly acquired HIV cases are concentrated in men who have sex with men,” she said.

“We know that gay and bisexual men in declared monogamous relationships are a lower risk within this group, but they are still at a higher risk of exposure than people in heterosexual relationships, based on where new cases of HIV fall in our population.”

In the 1980s, amidst the HIV/AIDS pandemic, gay and bisexual men and transgender women were banned from donating blood across the world to reduce the risk of transmission.

Australia became the first nation to revoke this lifetime ban in 2000, but 20 years later its blood donor policy lags behind many other nations.

44-year-old Newcastle-based English woman, Connie Voisey-Barlin, a Hodgkin Lymphoma survivor and blood transfusion recipient, says that to increase its blood supply, Australia needs to take note of the policies of other countries.

Connie Voisey-Barlin

“There’s no chance of solving the problem before we make some progress,” she said

“It’s ridiculous.”

In mid 2021, Lifeblood reduced the wait time between having sex and donating blood or plasma from 12 months to three months for gay and bisexual men and transgender women.

However, this is a blanket rule that doesn’t consider individual circumstances or sexual behaviour.

29-year-old queer creative and lobbyist Daniel Cottier just wants equality.

Daniel Cottier

Cottier believes that it comes down to Lifeblood “not trusting” that the LGBTQIA+ community are taking adequate steps to reduce HIV transmission.

“Which at the height of the AIDS pandemic was a rule that definitely saved lives,” they said.

“But it’s a very different time and there are a lot more precautions and safety measures.

“Their systems have changed, society has changed, but the rules have not.”

In June 2021, the United Kingdom replaced their approach with a risk assessment that is based on an individual’s sexual behaviour, rather than their gender or sexual identity.

After this, Just.Equal, a national lobby and activist group representing the LGBTQIA+ community, praised the move.

Just.Equal’s Rodney Croome said that the UK approach was a win-win.

“It means there will be more safe blood for those in need, and less stigma and discrimination faced by those gay, bisexual and transgender people who have been unfairly excluded,” said Croome.

“Risk of infection with HIV and other diseases through blood transfusion arises from the safety of a donor’s sexual activity, not the gender of their sexual partner, and the UK policy recognises this fact by shifting to an assessment of each individual’s risk.”

On April 29 of this year, Canada announced that they were also removing questions about sexuality from the pre-donor questionnaire in favour of an individualised risk assessment.

In the press conference announcing the amendment, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the existing policy was “discriminatory and wrong”.

“This is a significant milestone in moving forward on both the safety of our blood supply, but also non-discriminatory practices,” he said.

Canada has followed France, UK, Germany and Israel, amongst others, who have updated their blood donor policies to include individual assessments, rather than blanket rules.

62-year-old Novocastrian Carolyn Mathwin has worked in a hospital since she was 18 and has seen just how lifesaving blood donations can be.

Carolyn Mathwin

She has regularly donated blood and plasma for the past 43 years because she believes it’s the right thing to do.

“I just think about other people,” said Mathwin.

“In those early days, they didn’t have the technology, so my blood could be helping somebody.”

But with so few donors in Australia, Lifeblood has issued 14 appeals for blood since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Cottier’s blood type is O Negative – the rare, universal blood type – and they regularly receive emails from Lifeblood requesting them to donate, which they find disheartening and frustrating.

“I’m like, ‘I can’t because of your rules. I want to. I’m trying. I wish,” they said.

When Cottier started campaigning, they hoped to “remove the shame for LGBTQIA+ people” and reduce the need for Lifeblood’s appeals by increasing the donor pool.

As the demand for blood soared across the world because of Covid-19, several countries, including USA, changed their rules to allow for more donors.

Lifeblood says that it won’t make eligibility changes based on blood stock.

“It takes time, research, and we need to know that it’s safe and feasible” said Falkenmire.

Mathwin says she is concerned what low blood stocks mean for those who rely on blood donations.

“Are they prepared to let someone pass away?” she asked.