Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority is to remove its lifetime ban on men who have sex with men donating blood starting September 25.

The Red Cross Blood Transfusion Centre announced on Thursday that it is changing its guidelines to allow men who have not had sex with other men in a year to donate blood. The move came on the same day that blood inventories fell to “alarming” levels across the city, as citizens were urged to donate.

Currently, the Hong Kong Red Cross does not allow men who report that they have had sex with another man at any point in their lives to donate blood, effectively placing lifetime bans on gay and bisexual men.

blood donation
A technician secures several test tubes filled with blood during a drive in New Orleans. File photo: Wikicommons/Vegasjon.

The lifetime ban on donating blood in many countries dates back to a time when HIV testing technology was new and often unreliable. But extended bans on donations from men who have sex with men are now often criticised for being discriminatory.

According to local media, the Hong Kong Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service said that it made the change in policy based on scientific research, and it believed that the move would increase the safety of the blood supply.

‘No negative effect’

According to HK01, Lee Cheuk-Kwong, the service’s Chief Executive and Medical Director, told reporters on Thursday that data from Australia indicates that accepting blood donations from gay and bisexual men did not negatively affect the safety of the blood supply.

In fact, research conducted in Australia, the UK and the US indicated that these men tended to answer health questions more honestly, thus increasing blood supply safety, he said.

Local NGO AIDS Concern said in a press release that it welcomed the removal of the lifetime ban, but expressed hope that the one-year restriction could be further shortened, in line with policies in other countries.

“With the advancement of science and technology, testing donated blood for HIV is now sophisticated,” the group said. “The window period of virus infection (when virus cannot be detected) is just 6 days, which has substantially mitigated the risk of HIV transmission during the window period in blood donation.”

But Ray Chan, the city’s first openly gay legislator, criticised the new policy on social media.

“The blood donation ban should be targeting unsafe sex, not sexual orientation. If the lifetime ban is discrimination, then so is the 12-month ban!”

ray chan blood
Ray Chan being refused for blood donation in 2013.

He included the hashtags: “Does not count as a successful fight; Is banning for a year better than banning for life; and How many gay men do not have sex for a year.”

The UK changed its blood donation rules in July to allow men who have sex with men to give blood three months after their last sexual activity. The US and Australia have one-year donation deferral policies.

According to the Department of Health, the number of new reported cases of HIV in Hong Kong contracted through homosexual intercourse steadily increased over the past decade to a total of 378 last year, compared to 145 cases contracted through heterosexual intercourse. Statistics since 1984 suggest that males in the city are four times as likely to contract the virus.

Low inventory

Also on Thursday, the Red Cross said that blood inventories had fallen to an “alarming” level, as it appealed to the public to donate.

“At present, the blood inventories of all blood types, including O positive, A positive and B positive, have already depleted to an alarming level. The BTS [Blood Transfusion Service] urges citizens to join in and support blood donation. Hong Kong needs more of its citizens to be ready to get involved in supporting and taking part in blood donation to ensure adequate blood supply,” a spokesperson said.

”Click to view extended service hours at four blood donation centres – open late until Sunday.“

Central District Donor Centre
1/F, Tung Ming Building, 40-42 Des Voeux Road Central, Central
Service hours: 11am to 8pm (except Sunday)

Kwun Tong Donor Centre
Units 2301 and 2316, 23/F, Millennium City 5, 418 Kwun Tong Road, Kwun Tong
Service hours: 11am to 8pm

Shatin Donor Centre
1/F, Hong Kong Red Cross Bradbury Shatin Centre, 1A Sha Tin Centre Street, Sha Tin
Service hours: 11am to 8pm

Yuen Long Donor Centre
Units 704-705, 7/F, Yuen Long Landmark, 115-127 Yuen Long Castle Peak Road, Yuen Long
Service hours: 11am to 8pm

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.