HEALTH MINISTER Terrence Deyalsingh’s announcement of a change in the way the Blood Bank does business is to be welcomed, but the minister must clarify the details of the new system.
Speaking during the budget debate, Deyalsingh described the current chit system as “inequitable and dangerous.” However, the minister did little to explicitly address longstanding concerns over some of the archaic and downright discriminatory criteria by which people are screened to donate blood.
This country has long been in contravention of World Health Organisation guidelines when it comes to the use of blood-donor chits. Under this system, when blood is donated, receipts are issued which are then traded for cash or other considerations. Blood is sometimes donated under the understanding that there is a link with an intended recipient but, in reality, this is not necessarily so.
Dr Kenneth Charles, a former director of the National Blood Transfusion Service, called for the system’s abolition since 2011. Incredibly, it was only on Monday that Deyalsingh announced “a pure 100 per cent voluntary altruistic system of blood donation.”
“It eliminates the need for poor people having to go and pay somebody to give blood and it takes the risk out from them going to risky donors, people with HIV, people with hepatitis and so on,” Deyalsingh said. His comments raised more questions than answers since, for instance, all blood is supposed to be tested for certain infections before use, including HIV and hepatitis.
And the minister’s invocation of the phrase “risky donors” appeared to dance over the State’s controversial blood donation criteria. The gov.tt website, for instance, states certain people should not give blood including men who have had sex with men. Women who have had sex with a man who once had sex with a man are told not to give blood for one year.
These criteria have caused much anguish and harm, preventing people in the LGBTQ community who practise safe sex and who have been tested and cleared from coming forward to assist their family members or loved ones at times of need. Will these archaic criteria remain in place under the “100 per cent voluntary altruistic system?”
The current arrangements are turning off more than just members of the LGBTQ community. According to the Ministry of Health, only 20,000 units of blood are donated by members of the public annually. This is well below WHO recommendations which state blood banks should collect one unit for every 20 people every year or 65,000 units per year. Meanwhile, the need for blood is increasing given the prevalence of a range of diseases.
Abolishing the chit system is a good first step towards reforming this process. But like Canada and the United Kingdom, we should also take steps to comprehensively review and reform all other aspects of the system that are turning people away.