Johann Hari: People are dying because gay men can't give blood

One HIV-positive blood donation will slip through every 5,769 years.

Related Topics

When I was a student, I went along with a group of my friends to give blood, clutching my arm nervously. All summer, increasingly desperate adverts had been warning that NHS blood banks were on the brink of drying up, and I felt I had a debt to repay: a few months before, my grandmother had been hit by a car, and quarts of blood from anonymous donors saved her life.

The posters said: "Anyone with a heart can give blood." As we waited for the jab, we all filled in a questionnaire. My friends were led in one-by-one to donate – but I was taken aside and told: we don't want your blood. You're gay. The rules state: "You should never give blood if you are a man who has had sex with another man, even 'safe sex' using a condom."

If you have ever had gay sex, the NHS considers your blood contaminated for life. But a court case unfolding in Australia has exposed the bad science behind this ban – and shown that it endangers all of us, gay and straight.

The defenders of the ban have a superficially plausible case. All donated blood is obviously tested carefully – but it can take a few months for the HIV virus to show up. So if you only recently contracted HIV and you then give blood, you can unwittingly inject the virus into the blood bank. Gay men are seven times more likely to contract HIV than straight men. So it has been judged that the risk is simply too great.

They are right about one thing: safety is the first, second and third priority of blood donation. The whole point of giving blood is to save life, not endanger it. If gay donations really did endanger people, that would trump any commitment to anti-discrimination. Giving people Aids obviously would not be a price worth paying for equality.

But in reality, that dilemma doesn't occur. Earlier this year, a 21-year-old gay electronics technician called Michael Cain launched a court case against the Australian Red Cross after they refused to take his blood. He wants gay men who exclusively practice safe sex – like him – to be allowed to donate like everyone else. The scientists testifying at the trial included the doctor who first created the blood ban – who came to apologise. They explained that blood banks now have to choose between two competing risks. On one side is the high risk of people dying because they are given old, stale blood due to a lack of donors. On the other side is the infinitesimally small risk of people dying because they have been given blood by condom-wearing gay men.

The US epidemiologist and bio-ethicist Dr Scott Halpern crunched the figures for the court. Some 1 in 100 people who are infused with blood older than 14 days will die – and 13 per cent of infused blood offered by the Red Cross is older than that. This, he explained, poses a risk "thousands of times greater" than "the very worst predictions of HIV infection" if you let latex-loving gay men donate. Why? Because if the ban is lifted and gay men who practice safe sex are allowed to donate, a single HIV-positive blood donation will slip through clinical screening once every 5,769 years. That's one time between now and the year 7777 – or equivalent to it happening once since 3761 BC, when cities had not yet been invented.

So the facts are in: the ban kills far more people. Even Dr John Kaldor – the Red Cross's chief medical adviser – admitted the rules were "out of date." A country as institutionally and viciously homophobic as Russia has lifted the ban – yet in Britain it persists. In 2001, the head of our National Blood Authority, Mike Fogden, even dubbed gay men like me "evil" and said we are "prepared to put at risk the innocent life of an innocent patient (even a newborn child) to satisfy [our] own selfish prejudice."

But why? As Russell Hirst, a young gay British man, puts it: "I was very shocked that, when my sister got ill and needed a lot of blood, I wasn't allowed to donate it. I just want to be equal. Everybody should be judged on their personal activities. If a gay man says that he's had unprotected sex with a man, then he should not give blood for 18 months – but I don't see why it should be a lifetime ban." He's right. Our blood banks are running low, and we are locking three million donors out. Isn't it time to end this bloody homophobia – for all our sakes?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a campaign visit to Chris Sedgeman Scaffolding in Penzance  

General Election 2015: With not long to go, all the main parties need to up their game

Ian Birrell
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions