Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Hospital stops gay man giving blood

John Hooper in Rome
Monday September 5, 2005
The Guardian

Italy's health minister has condemned a decision by one of the country's biggest hospitals to stop a gay man giving blood.
A 39-year-old writer was turned away from the Policlinico hospital in Milan after telling staff he was gay. Paolo Pedote said he had been informed that, although Italian law allowed him to give blood, it was "internal policy" not to accept gay male donors.

The health minister, Francesco Storace of the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance, called the decision "very serious and unacceptable". Announcing an inquiry, he said: "We intend to determine the administrative responsibility. But what has happened could also be grounds for a criminal investigation."

The director of the Policlinico's transfusion centre said he stood by his staff's decision. Paolo Rebulla said his department had "a fundamental duty to protect patients who receive blood". It was ready to take responsibility for its decisions which were based on "strongly prudential criteria".
In an interview with the Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera, Professor Rebulla said the hospital's policy was to exclude adult males who had had sex with other men in the previous five years. He said "authoritative studies and a broad medical literature" showed they were more likely to be HIV-positive.

Prof Rebulla added: "In the case presently under discussion, there are [also] certain factors relating to the risk of the partner."

He said tests carried out on donated blood had "margins of error, albeit very small".

Until 2001, prospective donors in Italy were obliged to make a declaration on their "non homosexuality".

A law introduced 10 years earlier had banned outright the giving of blood by anyone who had had "man to man sexual relations".

But the rules were changed under a centre-left government to apply to high-risk behaviour rather than categories of people. Anyone who acknowledges having had more than three partners in the last 12 months is now excluded.

However, Prof Rebulla said the law continued to give doctors room for discretion.

Gay rights groups said at the weekend that they had had several reports from other parts of Italy of hospitals implementing policies similar to the one adopted in Milan.

The Arcigay association said: "The incident which took place at the Policlinico is merely the tip of an iceberg that rarely surfaces in the press. It is a widely spread phenomenon because of the homophobia of many health workers."

A centre-left MP said he had tabled a question for the health minister seeking assurances that the law would be applied in such a way as to "allow donors to fulfil their duty and obligations without any form of discrimination".

But Mr Storace's predecessor, Girolamo Sirchia, deplored the controversy saying "the only priority for doctors is the care of the sick".