Monday, June 12, 2006
South Africa's Blood Bank's Racial Profiling
The local blood bank (SANBS), like other such national services aims to keeps its blood supply as safe as is feasible. As you will know, the prevalence of all sorts of STIs is quite different in different groups of peoples. Say, among gay white males in the US of A HIV has probably a higher prevalence then among lesbians. So, it is SOP of many blood banks to discriminate actively against such donors. Usually the forms will state something like 'if you're a gay male and you have had sex during the last five years... please go away and watch a movie, but don't donate blood'. You'd probably argue that it would be better to ascertain what type of sex such a guy had, after all, he might have engaged in mutual masturbation with a few zillion others. In reality, this doesn't seem to have worked properly ever, hence all gay men are prohibited from donating blood if they're sexually active. By that means you reduce the likelihood that an HIV infected donation slips through. Of course, blood services test for HIV, but tend to use more often than not tests that don't pick up an infection during the 3 months window period after infection. Consequently you have a policy in place that also is in the best interest of gay male recipients of transfusion units, because they're less likely to get an infection while being transfused.
Of course, this being the new South Africa, 'race' is a big big thing, and someone discovered that the local blood banks don't use blood donated by black South Africans for transfusion purposes (albeit for other blood products that allow the heating of donated blood to the point where the virus would get killed). Main reason is that the HIV prevalence is substantially higher amongst black folks than among indian or white folks (or coloured's, another uniquely local contribution to racial classification -carried over from apartheid South Africa into the 'new' South Africa). Our health minister, has discovered that this, of course, amounts to racism and the usual evilness of 'them' out there (them being an amorphous mass of folks whose skin coloration is lighter than her's). Being (unfortunately) in charge as she is, she demands that this policy be stopped and the blood of Black donors utilised for transfusion purposes. The blood bank countered that this would result into a minimum of 100 additional recipients of infected transfusion units per year. What is particularly galling about her charge of racism is that her policy would mostly affect black patients, because the majority of recipients of transfusions, obviously, happen to be black.
Seems they could get around this issue by adding another test that is claimed to be able to pick up infections during the window period. Cost about another 90 million Rand p/a. This in a place where patients die preventable deaths, for instance because of a lack of sufficient ventilators in public sector hospitals.
Here's an interview I gave to the local broadcaster SABC. And here's a piece from the CAPE ARGUS newspaper.