Gays and SANBS kiss and make up

The impact of HIV/AIDS has led to far greater focus on safe donor blood than ever before, and the South African National Blood Services (SANBS), custodian of the reserves, has managed to step on almost everyone's toes in its efforts to safeguard reserves.

Last year the discovery that the SANBS was discarding black donor blood on grounds of there being a higher risk of HIV attached led to a public outcry.

Although that policy - which Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said "smacked of racism" - has since been changed, the SANBS's donor questionnaire is now the focus of attention.

Among the questions asked of prospective male donors is whether or not anal or oral sex with another man took place during the last five years. If so, the would-be-donor was rejected, despite statistics showing that women bear the brunt of the AIDS pandemic in South Africa.

According to the 2005 UNAIDS Epidemic Update, HIV prevalence in the country was rising, especially among women aged 25 to 43, with more than one in three estimated to be infected.

The questionnaire drew widespread reaction from various local gay rights groups, with the Western Cape-based Triangle Project accusing the SANBS of choosing to "pathologise the gay community" instead of highlighting the risk of anal sex, irrespective of sexual orientation.

Dawn Betteridge, director of the Triangle Project, told PlusNews: "While it is generally accepted that unprotected anal sex increases risk of HIV infection, it is a generalisation that all gay men practice this form of sexual expression. If the blood services intends rejecting blood from gay men who have engaged in anal intercourse, the same rule should also apply to heterosexual donors who practice anal sex."

She also stressed that blood should not be accepted from any donor who had engaged in fellatio during the SANBS's given timeframe, and noted that the donor exclusion policy was prejudiced, as it encouraged further stereotyping and marginalisation of the gay community.

"We currently have no tangible statistics on the HIV infection rate among South African homosexuals because data collected on HIV prevalence is gleaned from pregnant women attending antenatal clinics," Betteridge observed.

The Triangle project pointed out that the questionnaire had been devised in accordance with international standards as stipulated by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which the group felt had little bearing on the impact of AIDS in South Africa.

UNAIDS noted that South Africa's pandemic, one of the largest in the world, "shows no sign of relenting," with 29.5 percent of women attending prenatal clinics in 2004 testing positive.

"Although the issue of the questionnaire is a delicate subject, we feel a suitable resolution could be reached through participation from the relevant role players," Betteridge commented. She hoped that under "calmer circumstances" the SANBS would agree to revisit and amend its exclusion policy.

SANBS spokesperson Ianthe Exall said the organisation shared Triangle's sentiments and agreed that the wording of the questionnaire had been gender insensitive.

She told PlusNews that with more information on the various modes of HIV transmission her department would be better equipped to make changes without deviating too much from the standards set by WHO.

"There is a lack of appropriate statistical data at present, but should it be made available, we could possibly change the wording. We would, however, still need to comply with WHO and international standards, so it could take time to get it just right," she said.

Exall revealed that the questionnaire for assessing the HIV risk of the potential donor according to individual sexual behaviour was being revised.

The SANBS, in tandem with gay rights groups, expressed outrage at the protest mechanism that the unofficial Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GLA) had chosen to deal with the matter.

According to Glenn de Swardt, the Triangle Project's manager for health and research, the GLA claimed it had recruited more than 100 gay men to donate blood at various donor stations without disclosing their sexual activities on the questionnaire.

"The Triangle Project, together with similar credible organisations, have distanced ourselves from the GLA's actions, as such activity did nothing to address homophobia as well as other existing gender disparities - in fact, it only serves fuel it," he remarked.

De Swardt feared the "irrational" manner with which the GLA chose to handle the matter could spark a backlash against homosexuals in Africa's most gay-tolerant country.

In December 2005 the South Africa's constitutional court ruled in favour of same-sex marriages, putting it on a par with Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain, which have enacted legislation granting gay and lesbian couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

"As it stands, gay communities are tolerated by the constitution, but public attitudes can be easily swayed - violence and intimidation against gays and lesbians still exists, and things could just get worse as a result of GLA's irresponsible terror tactics," de Swardt commented.

Meanwhile, the SANBS told PlusNews it had found no evidence that its blood reserves had been jeopardised, and had agreed to work with the appropriate rights and research groups on reaching consensus.