Gay blood donation in Southern Africa

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The Easter Season of public holidays is a time of intense movement on the roads, as you are all too aware of. Using my recent trip to bucolic hills of the Midlands Meander from Cape Town, I would estimate people spend at least a third of their time driving. For some, these excursions lead to atrocious pile ups on the roads. Were it not for blood transfusions, most people would not survive the day their road trip trip turned into a nightmare. I am not trying to write about this glibly, but since I am writing about donating blood as a gay man, I need to mention that whether we are pink or not, our veins run with a deep red, life saving body fluid.  Whether we drive a car straight out of the lifestyle pages of a gay magazine, or our granny’s relic, we are on the roads and so we are all at risk of injuries that will see us in need of a blood transfusion.

Now, as a blood donor I am proud to be gay. In my country, Namibia, I can donate blood so long as I have not had casual sexual encounters – and neither has my partner – in the past 12 months. The situation in this country, I heard, is that you can donate so long as you abstain from anal sex for at least 6 months. Clearly, the South African guidelines specifically refer to sex with a man, while those in Namibia do not specify the gender of your partner. Regardless of how difficult or impractical either of these guidelines may seem to you (the blood transfusions services in this country seem to be calling gay men to creativity in the bedroom, while those in Namibia ask us to go the long haul with one partner only), they are doable.  I’ve adhered to both of these guidelines, because I see donation not just as selfless act, but a pivotal part of my gay pride.

To understand this, you need to look back at one of the biggest public health crises to hit the United States in 1980s. This was shortly after the discovery of HIV as the cause of HIV and gay were seen as not so innocent sources of this scourge. Their blood became contagious, carrying a death sentence for the countless people dependent on transfusions, including and ironically so, other gay men, such as hemophiliacs. Since that time, we know that HIV epidemic went global, spreading via the sexual networks of diverse groups, not least gay tourists and business people. As Elizabeth Pisani wrote in her work, the Wisdom of Whores, AIDS is about people doing daft things in the pursuit of money and pleasure. Since South Africa has been part of the global gay scene for some time now, and Namibia still never was, the Western genetic grouping of HIV, known as B clade, entered the population of white men who have sex with men in the 1990s. For a time, people noticed black men who have sex with men were infected with the C clade, which is predominant in the rest of Southern Africa, indicating there was not much mixing between the two populations. This may have very well changed.

The consequence of what one organization termed a ‘gay men’s health crisis’ is that blood transfusion clinics barred any men who have sex with men from donating. In some instances, these restrictions have been altered, as in the case of South Africa, to target the potentially unsafe individuals (who engage in unsafe sex) and still obtain blood from gay men who believe there are other ways of being gay – ways that do not include nights that start a club and end up in the bed of a fellow reveler. 

When I donate my blood, I affirm my blood is safe. I would love to go on a blood date with anyone else who wants to, but because of whatever serostatus (HIV, Hepatitis B or C) cannot. We can sit there eating sushi while I bleed into a bag. And no one will ask why you are not donating –  there are a myriad of other reasons people don’t, including low iron, taking part in a competitive sport or taking a course of medication. Besides, those who truly are afraid someone will suspect they have the virus (whatever virus that may be) would not show up at blood transfusion clinic anyway. Of course, let me not forget the instance where a man who is regular donor is in between donations, recuperating their red blood cells, and comes to give me support. Now that’s an idea. Twilight eat your heart out!

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About writinghealth

Wannabe Epidemiologist? Wannabe med anthro person? I guess. Christian, scientist (not Christian scientist), i mean like I studied molecular biology and I part of the RC Church. I also completed a Masters of Public Health, at the University of Cape Town, in Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
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3 Responses to Gay blood donation in Southern Africa

  1. GayLifeZA says:

    I agree with you about blood donation. There are clearly some statistical reasons for the ban on ‘gay blood’, however I do not think they justified the ban. It was prejudicial. Luckily, South African blood donation services lifted the ban and now allow gay people to donate if they are in a monogamous relationship. I wrote about the ban being lifted in my blog here: http://www.gaylife.co.za/ban-on-gay-blood-donation-lifted/

    • I really appreciate your contribution to my blog! When we speak of prejudice, we mean discrimination targeted towards men who have sex with men (MSM) on rational grounds. I am not sure if we can justify this definition of prejudice, since the blood transfusion service based their findings on the available evidence at the time, notwithstanding its shortcomings such as the JEMS study in Durban and Johannesburg, that showed (MSM) to bear a huger burden of HIV. Recent data from a survey in the Eastern Cape now confirms that MSM in South Africa have higher HIV prevalences than their peers who do not report sex with other men. I believe the question of whether banning donation would reduce donations from MSM who do not know their HIV status was what the SABDS had to grapple with. Would you like to donate blood sometime?

      • GayLifeZA says:

        I do donate blood regularly, and am proud that it is now completely allowed. Statistics also show certain races to have higher HIV prevalence, however the blood services do not (thankfully) discriminate by race.

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