The largest student organisation in Northern Ireland, NUS-USI, has called for Health Minister Edwin Poots to step down over his refusal to allow gay men to donate blood.
Mr Poots is facing mounting pressure to explain why gay men here cannot donate blood while blood stocks from other parts of the UK — where gay men can donate — are used to treat patients here.
It comes as the Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) said it is essential as many people as possible attend donation sessions and warned that a ‘fall in support at blood donation sessions could be serious’.
The DUP minister has said his controversial decision is based on two pieces of evidence — a letter from the Minister for Health in the Republic and a document on the issue by the European Department for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare (EDQMH).
The letter from Dr James Reilly TD sent to Mr Poots at the end of May said that the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood exists in Ireland “is based not only on risk factors for HIV but on other blood borne agents known to be associated with MSM (men who have sex with men) behaviour”.
Meanwhile, research carried out by EDQMH said, ‘studies suggest an increased risk of undetected infectious donations if the lifetime ban for MSM on donations is lifted’.
Reacting to Mr Poots’ latest comments on the issue, NUS-USI president Adrianne Peltz called on him to consider his position.
The organisation, which represents 200,000 students, unanimously passed a motion to put pressure on the minister to overturn the ban.
Ms Peltz said: “If Mr Poots cannot bring himself to treat everyone equally on blood donation then how can he expect the community to have confidence in him as Health Minister? He has had every opportunity to end the ban but his abject failure is disgraceful.
“It's time that Edwin Poots considered his position as Health Minister. His intransigence on this issue of equality has brought shame on Northern Ireland.”
She said Mr Poots does not deserve his place in the Assembly if he cannot live with equality. “It's time that any politicians with a problem with equality either change their attitude or step aside,” she said.
Conall McDevitt, a member of the Stormont health committee, said Mr Poots comments on the issue are “repellent and unscientific”. He said the SDLP cannot support the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood.
“We are yet to see any significant evidence to support Poots’ views,” he said. “On the contrary, the prevailing opinion among UK medics is that there is no higher risk associated with the blood of gay men, hence the decision to reverse the ban in Britain.
“Just before Christmas he was content to ship in units of blood from other parts of the UK, where there is no longer a ban.
“All blood donations are subject to rigorous screening for a number of diseases. donor.” Mr McDevitt added: “My party will be calling on the minister to bring forward the totality of his alleged evidence and answer for the bigotry inherent in his comments.”
Mr Poots told the BBC he would like to prohibit blood donations from everyone who engages in what he called, high risk sexual behaviour, which he said included people who have sex with prostitutes and people from Africa.
Donald Makoni from the African Caribbean Community Organisation in Northern Ireland said he is “disgusted” by Mr Poots’ comments.
“This reflects the thinking at senior level in government here,” he said. “We want to get to the centre of why the government thinks in this manner and is treating people in this manner.”
Last November, a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood was dropped in England, Scotland and Wales in light of evidence produced by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs. At the time, Mr Poots refused to implement the changes in Northern Ireland as he said he wanted to examine all the evidence before making a final decision. He announced at the weekend that the ban will stay in place and he would like to extend it to anyone — male or female — who is involved in high risk sexual behaviour.
Questions and answers
Question: What evidence is Edwin Poots relying upon to uphold a lifetime ban on gay men donating blood in Northern Ireland?
Answer: The minister said he has two pieces of evidence — a letter he received from the Irish Minister for Health, Dr James Reilly, which said a lifetime ban is in place in Ireland due to an increased risk of the transmission of blood-borne infection. He has also referred to a document produced by a European health promotion organisation, the European Department for the Quality of Medicines and Healthcare, which said it does not support allowing gay men to donate blood.
Question: What countries allow gay men to donate blood?
Answer: In the US and Canada, men who have sex with men (MSM) are permanently excluded. In Australia, Argentina, Japan, England, Scotland and Wales, MSM can donate blood one year after their last sexual encounter. Other EU countries which permit gay men to donate blood after a specified time period are Latvia, Spain and Italy.
Question: Should patients receiving blood transfusions from the rest of the UK be concerned about the fact that gay men can donate blood in GB?
Answer: The organisation that oversees blood and organ donation in England has said people should not be concerned. The NHS Blood and Transplant organisation said all of the policies in place to ensure the safest possible blood for patients are based on the most up to date scientific evidence. The review carried out by the Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs in 2011 concluded that changing from a permanent exclusion to a 12-month deferral would not impact on the safety of the blood supply. A statement said: “Whilst there is an acceptance that no medical treatment can have zero risk for patients, we would like to reassure patients receiving transfusions that the blood supply is as safe as it reasonably can be.”
Question: Why does Northern Ireland accept blood from the rest of the UK where gay men are allowed to donate blood?
Answer: At times, blood stocks here are too low so there is an agreement that UK countries share blood stocks. This agreement has remained in place since November and between then and January 2012, Northern Ireland received over 100 units of blood from the rest of the UK.
Question: What happens when someone gives blood?
Answer: All donors fill out a questionnaire which assesses their eligibility. As long as they meet the criteria they are allowed to donate blood. All blood donations are tested on every occasion for evidence of infection with HIV, hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus (HTLV), and syphilis. The tests used are now extremely sensitive but there is a period just after becoming infected when a donor's blood could test negative yet still pass on the infection to the recipient. This is why some people must wait a specified period before donating blood, such as people who have had a surgical procedure or those who have been in certain foreign countries.