Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Blood Feud

Every year around December the South African National Blood Service starts shouting frantically that blood stocks are low and that they are desperately in need of donors. This past month I have seen the familiar call on lamp post advertising and in newspaper headings, heard their plaintive whining for blood on the radio and on TV - and cursed the SANBS under my breath every single time.

And every year around this time, many people will answer this call - whether out of civic duty or simply out of helpfulness and love for their fellow human beings, they will go to donation centers to answer this call to satiate South Africa's lust for blood.

What I find both sad and hypocritical in this scenario, is the fact that every year this time, many people who do so, will find themselves turned away and indirectly told that neither they, nor their blood - are good enough for the high and mighty standards of the SANBS.

I find it unbelievable that despite this "shortage of blood" which has the SANBS in such a flat spin annually, gay or bisexual men and transgender people are still banned from donating blood - based on fairy-tales, right-wing junk-science and plain old-fashioned prejudice.

On 9 December 2009, I along with several other members of a local advocacy organization underwent voluntary HIV testing. The aim of this was to show how easy and convenient HIV testing is these days. Let's recount:

Waiting time for results = 10 minutes.

Cost of blood tests = R17,00 each. (About $2.30)

10 minutes and R17,00. It was even so "cost-effective" - i.e "cheap" that numerous centers even performed free HIV tests for the public at shopping malls and clinics all over the country! Isn't it interesting though, that despite this, the SANBS still discriminates unfairly against gay and bi males and transgender people for the cost of a mere R17,00 and 10 minutes? That is peace of mind for about the cost of a 2 liter bottle of Coke.

I guess they really don't need blood then, do they? Or is it an indication that our blood just isn't worth it, and neither are we?

I mean, at this point the SANBS is really not testing every unit of blood donated for HIV, is it? If that were the case, it would seem quite reasonable that they have concrete proof then, that all gay men and transgender people as a group are an HIV risk? Have they ever presented any actual concrete evidence - that is, genuine facts and not thumb-sucked and fraudulent "studies" - to prove this, and to justify the pink blood ban? No? Why not?

Or has it all been left to a scant reference to some obscure pseudo-scientific "studies" conducted by charlatans and mad-scientists such as the iconic fraud and former-"Dr" Paul Cameron and others, who among other things maintain that people can "catch gay" off a public toilet seat and gay people "recruit in schools"?

Is HIV and AIDS a "gay only" disease, or can anyone get it? I rest my case. But judging by the way the SANBS treats blood donors, it is.

Some will say that gay men having sex can pass on HIV. Ok, I admit - gay men having sex can pass on HIV. But how about straight sex - are straight people immune to passing on HIV during sex? No? Ok - so there we have a problem with their theory - because both straight and gay sex can transmit HIV - but somehow they see fit to discriminate against gay people? How does this make sense? Add to the mix the tiny little detail that there are far more straight people than gay people - roughly nine times as many, statistically speaking - and just to make things even more interesting, there are more straight people living with HIV and AIDS than gay people who have the disease. But yes, I agree that for no reason at all, it makes perfect sense to just discriminate against a minority. Just because we are a minority, it does not make discrimination right. "LOL", as they way in chat-speak.

The pink community seems to remain a firm favorite when it comes to handing out discrimination. Oh yes, it is far easier to print a piece of paper to cast a moral judgment and query people on who they have been sleeping with rather than to actually check the HIV status of people who want to donate blood. Following the dilemma they faced after the incident where they discarded President Mbeki's blood in 2005, based on racial profiling - the same principle of discrimination on the premise that Black people "all have HIV" the SANBS was embarrassed into dropping that silly little remnant of the Old South Africa toot-sweet. But when it is pointed out to them that the same discriminatory rule still unfairly applies to others, they get their backs up and say "Well, we have to draw the line somewhere." Well, so do we.

The solution to this dilemma is not to exclude or discriminate arbitrarily against whole groups of people, but to screen all donors or donated blood.

This is reinforced in the "six month rule" - a recent so-called "concession" (2005) which essentially means that if a gay man or transgender person wants to be a permanent blood donor, he or she has to be celibate for at least six months or for as long as they intend to be a blood donor. In plain language, it means that gay people are welcome to be blood donors just as long as they stop being gay. Some concession. Funny that no other group is required to be celibate in order to be a long-term blood donor.

That means the only actual "safeguard" supposedly "protecting" the receiver of blood against HIV is a piece of paper which includes irrelevant questions on sexual orientation and anal sex.

This presupposes that anyone who is gay or transgender (paradoxically excluding straight people who have anal sex, while including gay people who have been faithful to one partner) is somehow more likely to be HIV positive - and that actually bothering to test the donors - or allowing them to produce their own test results before donating this precious resource - is just too much fuss. It is far more convenient to just exclude them and to whine about the waning blood supply.

Are they testing blood behind closed doors for hepatitis A, B and C? Are they checking donated blood for syphilis? I didn't see them doing any tests - I just saw a few pointed questions on their pretty little form.

"Have you in the past 6 months had sexual contact with a person who has hepatitis?" Assuming I did, how would I know? How many people in SA actually know what hepatitis is? How many people just tick "no", "no", "no" to get done with the paperwork?

As for testing "window periods" and relying on people to be honest while filling in forms, let's not even go there.

The answer to the problem according to the SANBS, appears to be to simply discriminate against a whole sector of society and to eliminate them from the donor group - instead of screening all donors for the disease. It seems to make far more sense to discriminate unfairly than to actually do some work and employ affordable technology. This would actually make sense.

Regular blood donors need to provide proof of their medical fitness to remain regular blood donors. I fail to see why this arrangement cannot include everybody.

Near as I can figure, the SANBS places a price on the equality and human rights of gay and transgender people - R17,00 and ten minutes - and apparently considers this "too expensive".

If the SANBS REALLY needs blood, then it should either stop discriminating unfairly against a portion of society willing to assist - or quit whining.

The SANBS "stand firm" and claims they are "protecting" the receiver of blood - against what? If this is in any way true, then I ask myself if this is in any way similar to how certain groups claim they are "protecting the family" by campaigning against human and civil rights for gay people?

They seriously expect people to be honest when filling in a form - making a piece of paper the only actual protection the receiver of donated blood has - but the simple truth is, you can't lie your way through an HIV test.

Recently I sent a letter on the topic, containing some of the above, to a local newspaper, who instead of just publishing it as is, sent out a journalist to investigate and to do an article on the subject. I think she did a great job of it, and I thank her and her paper for their assistance.

What the intrepid reporter didn't mention in her article, was - and here it is again - that almost our entire committee underwent voluntary HIV testing, using standard issue test kits that cost R17 (ZAR) each and delivered results within 10 minutes - and somehow these tests, used at HIV clinics all over South Africa - are good enough to tell somebody they are HIV+ - but not good enough to screen donors. Go figure.

A gay man in the UK whose mother died from cancer is calling for a change in the law after he was prevented from donating blood to help her. If he was HIV negative and his blood-type matched hers - and she died because they wouldn't allow him to donate blood just because he is gay - then are the medical authorities not responsible for her death? Somebody has to answer for her death. Or are they justified in letting her die because her own son's blood was "too dangerous" because of his sexual orientation? That article infuriates me. In fact, I would like to meet the doctor foolish enough to prevent me from donating blood to save the life of my own mother! He would have to be a very brave man indeed.

All this nastiness and prejudice on the part of the blood service is simply reinforcing the unfounded and indefensible stereotype that being gay - and gay and transgender people are somehow "dangerous" - and this has got to stop!

What exactly is "risky sex"? Doing it behind the wheel while driving? Taking your eyes off the road while you're busy? Seems to me ALL sex is risky these days - so why are only gay and bi men and trans-women being penalized and discriminated against? With so many accurate, affordable, quick and convenient HIV tests available these days, how can any countries STILL impose lifetime - or ANY bans on ANYONE simply on SUSPICION and ASSUMPTION of their HIV status?

That isn't "putting the safety of blood receivers first" Mr Mohale - it is unfair and unjustifiable discrimination, and sheer fantasy - end of story.

What, so is the public supposed to be feeling "safe" just because the SANBS discriminate against gay and bi men and transgender people? Huh? Man, who are they bluffing? Not me.

Blood donors are checked for blood-iron content during the application process - I know it, because I was there - and I had the hole in my finger to prove it. It's a process which is about as quick and easy as the HIV test - so why don't they follow the same procedure using HIV tests too? Are they scared people will donate blood just to see if they can get a free aids test? Oh wait - is that why they put that little trick question in their questionnaire? Because they are afraid they will have to go to the bother of having an HIV counselor handy? Do they really expect me to believe that would really be so difficult to arrange?

Seems to me the SANBS is getting free blood anyway - are they of the opinion that a free HIV test in return is too much to ask?

Those who have ever had to pay a hospital bill for receiving a pint of blood will know how much it costs. In my opinion, such unrelenting frugality on the part of the SANBS is a slap in the face to the donor. Be that as it may, they argue about the "incubation period" - big deal. So, if infected blood can test as "safe" within the two week window-period after donation, then it makes sense to not issue units of blood until after two weeks - and then test them upon issue - and from the look of things which the SANBS seems afraid to admit, they should be testing all their stocks anyway. It only takes one drop after all - waste not, want not.

The simple truth is, that they shouldn't be discriminating against anyone - they should be testing EVERYONE who volunteers to donate blood.

If the Constitutional Court agreed in 2006 that it was indeed discriminatory to reject gay, bi and trans blood - then why are we still here four years later having this conversation?

Their case for continuing to discriminate on the basis of nothing more substantial than suspicion, is looking pretty thin - almost as thin as their dwindling blood supply.


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