By Beh Lih Yi
KUALA LUMPUR, April 17 (Openly) - Australia is set to ease rules on gay and bisexual men donating blood, health officials said on Friday, a move decried as "window dressing" by LGBT+ groups who criticised restrictions that would remain in place.
The proposed change - which needs to be approved by federal and state governments - would cut a 12-month waiting period on men who have had sex with men to three months, before they are eligible to donate blood.
It came after the United States earlier this month cut the celibacy period to three months due to rising concerns about blood supplies during the coronavirus crisis.
Australian authorities said the move was not related to the coronavirus outbreak, and maintained that the three-month waiting time - known as deferral period - did not discriminate against gay and bisexual men.
"Blood donor deferral policies are based on current scientific evidence and do not contravene Australian anti-discrimination law," a spokeswoman at Australia's Health Department told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
The recommendation to cut the deferral period had been under review before the COVID-19 outbreak, and that it also applied to other high-risk individuals, such as sex workers, she said.
The government has said Australia's blood supply level was safe and secure, although there were "continuing pressure" on stocks amid lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus.
But LGBT+ groups said the change was weak and would be ineffective in boosting blood supplies.
"At best the new celibacy period is window dressing to make a bad policy look better," said Rodney Croome, a spokesperson at just.equal, an advocacy group.
He said such restriction was a "hangover" from the 1980s, when many countries banned gay men from donating blood at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the HIV tests were less reliable.
"Those days are long-gone and our blood screening policy should be updated accordingly," Croome said in emailed comments.
In the U.S., calls to remove the three-month ban on gay and bisexual men donors grew louder with a joint letter released on Thursday by more than 500 doctors and researchers.
They said the recent reform did not go far enough in reversing the "unscientific ban", and only serve to "stigmatise" a group of potential donors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rules on blood donations by gay men around the world differ. Countries like Britain and Canada have abstinence period in place, while Malaysia and Greece are among nations that impose a total ban.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.
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