While an anti-discrimination commission in the Australian state of Tasmania has challenged the country’s ban on gay blood donors, the policy’s scientific basis is being investigated in South Africa.

The Tasmania Anti-Discrimination Commissioner has ruled that an enquiry must be undertaken by a full tribunal to assess whether the ban is unwarranted. Men are barred from donating blood in Australia if they have had sex with other men in the last 12 months. The commission has been investigating the claims of a Michael Cain who made an official complaint after being rejected by the Red Cross in 2004.

Cain says that the criteria for barring people from donating blood should be whether they have had unsafe sex, not on their sexuality or gender of their partners. Should the tribunal rule that the ban is discriminatory, it can force the Red Cross to change its policy in the state. The ruling could also have an impact on similar policies around the world.

South Africa also bars men who have had sex with men from donating blood; a policy – described by many as discriminatory and primarily based on foreign statistics – which led to considerable controversy earlier this year.

In February, after a meeting between the activist coalition Joint Working Group (JWG) and the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), it was announced that a panel of experts would be set up to assess the scientific basis for the policy.

According to Dawie Nel from OUT – one of the oldest gay and lesbian organisations in South Africa – the JWG and the SANBS have each appointed an epidemiologist to do research into existing scientific evidence and statistics on the rate of HIV infection among gay men in South Africa. While no date has been set for the process to be concluded, it is expected to be completed by the end of year.

Nel adds that, “If not enough information about the infection rate among men who have sex with men is available we may have to embark on a new local study.” He also said that the SANBS is looking at the wording of the questionnaire that must be filled in before donating blood to ensure that it is not offensive or discriminatory.

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