Monday, 29 October 2012

TN Argentina: Why gays can't donate blood?
18.6.2012 by Bruno Bimbi
Translated to English by Patrick Attard

What we now know as AIDS was called differently, in its early years. Some doctors called it, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), something like "immunodeficiency for gays" and others in the press referred to it as the "pink plague".
These names, that no serious person would defend today, appeared because, when the the first cases were discovered in the early '80s, the HIV virus had not yet been identified and it wasn't clear what this new disease was, and identified patients were male homosexuals. 
Many gays began arriving at hospitals with a combination of pneumonia, Kaposi's sarcoma and other opportunistic infections. Many then thought that it was something that affected only homosexuals, and some religious leaders took advantage of the situation and began to say, with their usual brutality, that the new disease was "God's punishment against gays." When, later, new cases began to appear, people who were not gay, (the difference between having the virus or having AIDS was not yet clear), because all cases coming to the hospitals were in an almost terminal phase, the divine punishment seemed to spread to others and doctors started talking about "risk groups". The concept was based on the mistaken notion that gay men, prostitutes, injecting drug users and hemophiliacs were at increased risk of becoming ill. For some time, including, much of the population believed that those who do not belong to these groups or had no direct contact with them were free of risk.
Time proved that it was false and that the "pink plague" was, in fact, a plague of all colors. Just as we know that the sun revolves around the earth and that the Three Kings are fathers, today we also know that stigmatizing arguments that emerged at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic had no scientific basis. We no longer speak over risk groups but of risk behaviour because this increases the risk of contracting HIV, not to have a particular sexual orientation or prostitution, but not using condoms, not using injectable drugs or being under treatment for hemophilia without using disposible needles. Today all the doctors in the world and most of the population, except in some countries ruled by dictators and fundamentalist theocratic regimes, know that the virus has no gender or sexual orientation and that treats everyone equally. And that everyone, absolutely everyone, must take care of themselves in the same way. Today we know that the statistics show that most people living with HIV are heterosexuals, especially women and the poor.
Years passed, decades passed, treatments were discovered which were then replaced by others, and today a person with HIV does not necessarily get to have AIDS since the drug cocktails used today-and that in our country [Argentina] are guaranteed by law to all - minimize the viral load to a minimum and allow recovery of body's defense mechanism. Decades passed and today we seem to be closer to a cure and vaccine than those early years when there was talk of the pink plague. Many things happened and we know a lot more. But nobody warned the Ministry of Health, which still forbids homosexuals to donate blood, by considering them as a "risk group." As though we were to teach in the schools that the sun revolves around the Earth in 2012.
History repeats itself whenever someone close needs a transfusion. Then, you see the sign on the door of the building, or mail or a phone-call from a friend or a family member: "Could you give blood? What is your group and factor? ". "Zero Group, Rh positive", will be the response of the majority according to statistics. But in order to give blood the appropriate factor and group are not enough. Furthermore, you should have the "adequate" sexual orientation. Resolution 58/2005 of the Ministry of Health of Argentina, which was signed by the former Minister Ginés González García, states that each donor must answer an extensive questionnaire, in which most of the questions are answered yes or no, and according to their responses the potential donor will be authorized or exempted. One question, for male donors states: "In the last 12 months, have you had sexual contact with other men?". And if the donor is a woman, "Have you ever had sex with a man who has had sex with another man?".
Men who have had sex with men and women who have had sex with men who in turn had sex with other men (and the man decided to tell the woman who now intends to donate blood) are automatically excluded.
Four years ago - four years! - I wrote on this topic for the journal Critique of Argentina, and till today nothing has changed. Sad. Various social organizations, such as Argentina Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans, Buenos Aires AIDS Foundation and CHA, have been claiming for years that the discriminatory form should be modified, adapting to international standards that take into account the scientific advances in the matter, and the issue is expected to be debated by Congress.
Socialist MP Roy Cortina has been promoting  a bill (Viewsince 2008 to end the discrimination against gay donors, which has not been treated yet. After him, there were two very similar bills, presented by MP Stella Maris Leverberg Kirchner (View) and Ricardo Gil Lavedra from the Radical Group (View). Apart from these three, signatures of various lawmakes from different parties were colected: Silvia Augsburger, Ricardo and Miguel Barrios Cuccovilo (Socialist Party), Oscar Albrieu, Mary Pilatti, Alex Ziegler, Timothy and Julia Llera Perié (FPV), Mary Luisa Storani Tunessi Juan Manuel Garrido, Miguel Bazze, Elza Alvarez and Eduardo Costa (UCR), Alfonso Prat Gay and Fernanda Gil Lozano (Civic Coalition), Patricia Bullrich (Union for All), Victoria Donda (Libres del Sur) and Marcela Rodriguez (former Civic Coalition). However, even though once it got a favorable opinion of the commission, none of the projects were discussed in the plenary and Cortina had to re-submit his Bill twice (2010 and 2012), because he had lost parliamentary status.
Cortina, who always supports the claims of the LGBT community in Congress, began to ask for this legal change in 2008. In the meantime marriage equality was approved, together with the law of gender identity, and anti-discrimination law reform was partially approved and sections discriminatory faults codes of several provinces were repealed, among other very important democratic advances which were won by the government of Cristina Kirchner, but blood donation seems to be a taboo. "By including questions about the sexual orientation of the people, the questionnaire was performed before donation invades the private sphere and incorporates a series of prohibitions that the law does not provide that, are based solely on the consideration of 'risk groups' , are plainly discriminatory, " said the MP.
- The Ministry of Health took a position in favor or against reform?
-The director of the National Blood Program showed up last year at the Commission on Social Action and Public Health to give her opinion. She said the Ministry was working on the modification of the questionnaire, which she called "outdated and was cumbersome to read." However, we have not seen any real changes.
- What position does the government have?
-There is a Bill in the same direction signed by members of the ruling party, but so far they have not taken a public stand as a bloc. Undoubtedly, it is one thing to keep in mind that the initiative has five years awaiting treatment.
- Is there a group to lobby against?
-The main rancor against the initiative has come from the Argentina Association of Hemotherapy and Immunohematology (AAHI), which has accused us of "idealising" the theme. They promote a discriminatory practice under assumed the scientific truths, remembering very dark stages in the history of mankind. However, the support has been critical of other sectors from the health world. Fundación Huesped [an AIDS Foundation] and members of the medical team at the Muñiz Hospital for Infectious Diseases, have worked a lot in drafting and defense of this initiative.
Indeed, Dr. Pedro Cahn, president of the Foundation for Infectious Diseases and Chief at Fundación Huesped and Fernandez Hospital, considered as the foremost expert on AIDS in Argentina, responded to my first note on this subject that "those who have had sex with no condom, no matter if it was with a man or a woman should be prevented from donating bloodBut this would reduce the number of donors, then we use a simple solution that does not work: stigmatize a group, using the idea of ​​'risk groups', which is something that no longer exists scientifically. What should matter is risky behaviour, not the sexual orientation. "
The issue is in the hands of the Congress and the Ministry of Health. In the Chamber of Deputies, the issue is back on the agenda of committees and Cortina has high hopes that, this time, the Bill will reach the plenary. I hope so. Either by law or by resolution of the Minister, it is time for Argentina to abandon the decade of the eighties! in relation to scientific knowledge about HIV and redesign its blood donation policy so that it is also consistent with other important decisions the country took in recent years to end discrimination against LGBT people.
There is no excuse for not doing so already.

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