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Calls to update controversial policy limiting queer men’s ability to donate blood

14 February, 2024

Interview by Castor Chacko, adapted by Joel Armstrong.

HIV prevention researcher, Peter Saxton, says updating our blood donation guidelines for queer men in line with other countries could see 10,000 new eligible donors in Aotearoa.

Currently, men who have had oral and/or anal sex with other men in the past three months are not eligible to donate blood, according to New Zealand Blood Service guidelines.

Blood donation guidelines for men who have sex with men (MSM) were introduced during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s to prevent the spread of the STI through blood transfusions before modern preventative measures were available. 

Since then, blood donation guidelines have gradually loosened, but gay, bisexual, and takatāpui men still face barriers to donating blood. 

A community report from the Sex and Prevention of Transmission Study (SPOTS) has found our blood donation legislation is outdated and needs to change.

HIV Prevention researcher at the University of Auckland School of Population Health and report author, Peter Saxton, told 95bFM’s The Wire that SPOTS is confident widening blood donation criteria to be more inclusive to MSM would not see an increase in HIV infections through blood transfusions.

The UK and Canada have extended the criteria, in which donors must not have had anal intercourse with a new, or multiple partners, in the last three months. These countries' policies do not single out MSM, and apply to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Saxton says evidence from the UK since changing regulations in 2021 has found that this has not led to an increase in HIV transmissions through blood transfusions.

New Zealand has significantly low levels of HIV transmission, thanks to prevention tools like condoms, taking PreP which drastically limits the chance of contracting HIV, and medication those with HIV can take to make it near impossible to pass on HIV to sexual partners.

Saxton says if legislation seen overseas was applied in Aotearoa, we could see triple the amount of MSM be able to donate blood — an increase of 10,000 eligible donors.

“We could increase the proportion who are eligible to donate blood, from 13% currently to 41% in a Canada-style policy.”

“The more donors we have, the better for everyone.”

Despite most SPOTS study participants indicating they want to be able to donate blood, a significant minority highlighted distrust in the New Zealand Blood Service.

Saxton says these individuals feel “alienated” and are hesitant to donate, regardless of whether policy changes. 

“This is the challenge to the Blood Service from our study; to rebuild that relationship with the gay community so that if and when the policy changes in future, gay and bisexual men come forward.”

Listen to the full interview

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air