Monday, 7 November 2011

Blood Ban not lifted - just shifted sideways

Yesterday Belfast was the driving force and focus for a forward looking music industry thanks to the MTV Europe Music Awards, today we are the backward cousin of the UK once again.

The reason.

While the rest of the UK have introduced a 12 month deferral period on men who have sex with men (MSM) giving blood, here in Northern Ireland our health minister, the DUP's Edwin Poots, is still apparently making up his mind. This despite the draft SaBTO report on the issue being available since April and the other three health ministers coming to the conclusion to accept SaBTO's recommendations in September almost 2 months ago.

At a recent Health Committee session at Stormont it was pointed out to the minister by the chair of the scrutiny committee Michelle Gildenew:

The briefing paper that we got from the Department was very helpful on compliance levels and on the current risk of HIV-infected donations being released into the blood supply. I refer you to the fact that the information provided in the paper states that, if the 12-month referral were introduced, the risk would be 0·228 per million donations. The current risk is 0·227 per million donations, so that would be a rise of 0·001 per million donations. How many donations do we get here in the North in a year? I would imagine that one million would be quite high, but the number would need to be over 100 million donations before the figures would kick in. That is an awful lot of blood for such a small place
When questioned on how many donations there were in the UK, the Minister said there were 2.5m across the UK a year, and that the Northern Ireland Population was 1.8% of the UK total so a divisor or 30 should be used. In other words 83,000 donations a year in the UK. Therefore the increased chance of removing the lifetime ban in Northern is one new infection ever 1204 years, or one new case by 3215.

There may be headlines saying that "lifetime ban" has been lifted, but if you are a heterosexual who is sexually active ask yourself one question. When was the last time you went for 12 months without having sex? Then tell me if the lifetime ban is lifted.

Of course it isn't it is merely a ban by another name, one that the Liberal Democrats refused to allow to continue at their conference in September. What we need is a policy based on the best testing regime, the best science and behaviour not a misconceived perception. One example of the continued stigma is the testing for hepatitis B and C antibodies instead of the actual virus. Why? Because those who regularly have their blood tested, especially MSM, are given inoculation against these so will have the antibodies but be protected from contracting the disease. This is the main concern apparently leading to a deferral period, because the antibodies take time to appear of course, whereas the testing for the actual disease is more rapid.

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