AIDS was discovered in gay men and the virus is more easily transmitted through anal than vaginal intercourse. For this reason, gay men (defined as “men who have sex with men”) have long been forbidden to donate blood in Sweden. Likewise, people who go to bed with a new hetero partner must wait three months before donating blood again.

Now the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare has decided to change the rules. A bit. Gay men are now allowed to donate blood. If the last time they had sex with a man was more than a year ago. So you’re only allowed to donate blood if you’re gay in the abstract, not in practice.

I don’t know what to think here. The changed rules are certainly more symbolic than practical in effect. But the virus is much more common among gay men than among heteros. And among blood donors who have showed up as positive in HIV screening, gay men are also strongly over-represented. (But they’re not allowed to donate in the first place, so I don’t know where those data come from.)

Still, regardless of who has it more and who has it less, the virus is very uncommon overall in Sweden, and those infected get good treatment that keeps their infectiousness way, way down. I don’t know what’s the bigger risk here: people dying from lack of donated blood or people contracting HIV from an infected blood bag.

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Comments

  1. #1 Richard Eis
    December 1, 2009

    Why do i get the feeling Sweden is getting desperate for blood donors.
    Thing is would you rather die from lack of blood on the operating table now, or possibly die 30 years later from a HIV related illness.

    Of course a cheap test that you can apply on the blood itself…

  2. #2 Augusto
    December 1, 2009

    I guess that according to your definition of an active sexual life I’m sadly a abstract, theoretical heterossexual. Which fits me greatly because I’m also a mathematician.

    On a sad and somewhat revolting sidenote, homossexuals also are almost always prohibited from donating blood here in Brazil, just like people who got too many (sic) tattoos/piercings and such.

  3. #3 kai
    December 1, 2009

    As soon as it was realised that HIV could be transmitted through blood, members of the groups recognised to be at higher risk were asked not to donate. Since October 1985, when suitable tests became available, all blood donations have been screened for HIV antibodies.

    Seems there is such a test. As I understand it there is also inactivation treatment of donated blood, so I don’t understand why not even known HIV+ individuals couldn’t donate.

  4. #4 rpenner
    December 1, 2009

    Shouldn’t the title be:
    Gay (in theory) Men Allowed to Donate Blood?

    Oh I see that you captured this in paragraph two. Fair enough.

  5. #5 N Williams
    December 1, 2009

    I did see this reported in the Swedish press and my first thought was to find out if the ban on gay men donating blood in the UK (where I live) had been relaxed, which it hasn’t. Sweden and the UK have similar restrictions, it seems. I remember that in the UK, the press reported this story while mentioning other risky groups of blood donors.

  6. #6 Mike Olson
    December 1, 2009

    I’ve noted before that I’m pretty much stuck in only being able to “learn” science from popular literature. 14 years ago, however, I was working as a lab tech in a Blood Donor Center. Work which was headed in the direction I hoped to go. Specifically, I found blood to be utterly fascinating. This was somewhat surprising as I was older at the time and had already graduated college with a degree in psych. I was also in a life situation that really prohibited me from pushing my education to the next level. With all the varieties of research going on, rather than get caught up in the significance of banning high risk groups, I believe we really need to be researching synthetic blood products with the most support possible. Transfusions have, to a degree solved a problem. But the problem didn’t go away. One of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov died of an AIDS related illness after receiving a blood transfusion. Human donations are going to always be susceptible to antigen/antibody reactions and because humans are imperfect and viruses evolve, there is always going to be the threat of disease being passed. There are more popular health issues. Which is sad, because although worthy those issues are not necessarily as deadly. Of course blood transfusion issues also fall under the greater umbrella of transplant issues. Stem cell research, at this point, seems to be the most promising area to produce an answer to alleviate these problems. Sorry, but this blog hit kind of indirectly onto my unfulfilled dreams.

  7. #7 orion
    December 1, 2009

    Not even sure why this is a story. In Australia where I live (and I assume elsewhere), there are restrictions on blood donations from lots of high risk categories. These include tattoos, sex with a prostitute, travelling to northern Australia (dengue fever), male to male sex, recent surgery or dental work, intravenous drug use, etc, etc. We also have a shortage of blood donors, and relaxing any of those restrictions would obviously increase the available pool, but the Red Cross has obviously determined that the risks outweigh the benefits.
    Why are you singling out male to male sex for discussion? Why not something like tattooing, which affects a much larger proportion of the population and which is probably less risky (just an opinion – not backed by evidence)?

  8. #8 Martin R
    December 1, 2009

    Why are you singling out male to male sex for discussion?

    Because that’s what the new rules in my country are about. And it’s World AIDS Day.

  9. #9 Richard Eis
    December 1, 2009

    I never understood the tattooing thing either. I mean 80% of my friends have some kind of tattoo. And my friends are quite a normal bunch. In fact having a tattoo in britain is probably the norm now.

  10. #10 Martin R
    December 1, 2009

    In Sweden, you need to wait three months after getting the tat, but then you’re allowed to donate as usual.

  11. #11 Graham Clark
    December 1, 2009

    In Britain, a lot of the donated samples that test positive come from men who have had sex with men but have donated in spite of being asked not to. More positive samples than that come from people who’ve caught the infection abroad, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and other areas with high prevalence. They also have been asked not to donate, but there you go.

    There are tests, of course, and they’re very effective – that being over 99% effective at flagging infected samples, of course, because the perfect test hasn’t been devised. Consequently the transfusion service prefers not to rely entirely on the tests to keep HIV and other pathogens out of the blood supply.

  12. #12 Angelo Ventura
    December 1, 2009

    Wel, what matters is NOT if they are gay or hetero, butif they have had unprotected sex with strangers or with people who have.Many homosexuals DON’t practice bareback nor are promiscuous. We heard of married heteros in sexual tourism in Thailand or Brazil who have unprotected sex with prostitutes, and transmit AIDS to thei wives.
    So, the question to ask is not about sexual orientation but about sexual behavior!

  13. #13 codero
    December 2, 2009

    This may be a stupid question, but how do you reliably check a person’s sexual orientation? I suppose they use a questionnaire of some sort?

  14. #14 Angelo Ventura
    December 2, 2009

    I suppose so…although, as I’ve said, the question to make should be: “have you had a risky sexual behavior?” because it would be discriminatory to assume gays are all risky and hetero never are. This is far from the truth.

  15. #15 Martin R
    December 2, 2009

    There’s a questionnaire every time you donate. It covers questions like “Are you a man who has ever had sex with men?”, “Are you pregnant?”, “Have you had hetero-sex with someone new in the past 3 months?”, “Have you been in a malaria area for the past 6 months?”.

  16. #16 Gavin
    December 3, 2009

    I think part of the problem is that for a while after you are infected with HIV the antibodies they use to test for it do not show up in your blood. This means that taking blood from high-risk groups will lead to more accidental infections through transfusions.

    That said, with current medications HIV very rarely becomes AIDS – it’s a chronic condition, almost totally manageable.

  17. #17 OriGuy
    December 4, 2009

    In the USA, there is a questionnaire that asks about sexual activity and IV drug use. It also asks about travel to various areas, including Africa and the UK. In the case of the UK, they are seeking to filter out BSE, not HIV. After you fill out the questionnaire, you go into a private room with a technician who asks many of the questions again. Finally, you are left with a card with two bar code stickers. If you attach one of them to the questionnaire, your blood will be used. If you attach the other, your blood will not be given to another person, but may be used for research. This is because some people feel pressure to donate from family, co-workers, etc.

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