Seanad debates

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Irish Blood Transfusion Service

10:30 am

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I am also delighted to see school children in the Seanad today.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, for coming to the House to deal with this matter. As he knows, there is a real crisis in blood stocks in our health service and there has been throughout the pandemic. Ireland has had to import blood stocks on three separate occasions over the past 12 months from the NHS blood transfusion service in the UK. It has been reported that blood supplies are so low that the Irish Blood Transfusion Service, IBTS, may have to trigger an amber alert. This is having a negative impact on planned surgeries and hospital activity. The Irish hospital system has enough problems at the moment dealing with reduced capacity because of the need to isolate patients due to Covid-19. A scarcity of blood products is the last thing it needs. As of last night, there was only a five-day supply of O negative blood in stock and last week there was only a two-day supply. As someone whose dad was a very diligent and proud donator of blood because he had a rare blood type, I must say that news of these shortages is terrifying. Indeed, it is terrifying for anyone who takes blood donation seriously. It is in that context that I am asking about the policy changes that were instigated this week by the IBTS.

In the first instance, I am very heartened that there has been a change in eligibility. It is important to say that in the past, gay and bisexual men who had sex with other men were banned for life from donating. That was changed in 2017. At that time, a wait period of 12 months was introduced before gay or bisexual men could donate blood. As of Monday of this week, that wait period has been reduced to four months. Given that we have such huge shortages in blood donations, what is the Department doing to advertise this? It is crazy that there seems to have been no active attempt to get the word out there. There is, of course, a wider issue around encouraging young people and people of all ages up to a certain point, to donate blood. The pandemic contributed greatly to a fall-off in the number of blood donors. Given this fact and the recent changes to eligibility, we need to see the Department advertising more.

While I very much welcome the aforementioned changes, I am concerned about the scientific basis for some of them. While neither I nor anyone else in this House has the scientific knowledge to be able to question the specific scientific evidence that was provided by the social behaviours review group within the IBTS, it is important that its advice is published. Concern has been expressed that some of the ideas and philosophical, scientific and health biases that were at work and which underpinned the ban on donation for many years are still at play. The question must be asked about the basis for the four-month wait period, given that the UK has moved to a three-month wait period. Why is it that a woman who has sex with a bisexual man is made to wait four months but that same bisexual man may be able to donate immediately if he had sex with a man more than four months ago? I must apologise to the children and the teacher in the Public Gallery but these are important matters. What is the basis for the type of sex as grounds for the wait period? There have been conflicting reports around public statements made last December with regard to oral sex and so on.

The fundamental issue is that there appears to be inconsistencies here. We are happy to import blood from Britain that is subject to rules that are different to the rules in operation here. Will the Minister for Health publish the advice of the social behaviours review group to inform us of the basis for the decisions of the IBTS?

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Sherlock for raising this issue and giving me the opportunity to speak on it on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly.

I agree that it is great to see school children in here today after a two year absence. They give the House a great sense of vitality. I am delighted to see them here today and I hope they enjoy their tour of Leinster House.

The remit of the IBTS is to provide a safe, reliable and robust blood service to the Irish health system. A major objective of the IBTS is to ensure that it always has the necessary programmes and procedures in place to protect both the recipients and the donors of blood and blood products. As Senator Sherlock is aware, following a review of existing donor deferral policy by an independent expert group last year, called the social behaviours review group, the IBTS announced a range of changes to its existing deferral policies, including those concerning gay and bisexual men who have sex with men. The objective of these policy changes is to move towards an individual assessment process for donors, making blood donation more inclusive, and to welcome additional donors.

The IBTS has committed to a phased approach to the introduction of these policy changes. Phase one involves reducing the 12-month deferral period for gay and bisexual men who have sex with men to 4 months. This was introduced by the IBTS last Monday 28 March. This first phase is an interim measure for lowering barriers to donation while extensive technical system upgrades are made. These upgrades will replace the existing paper-based health and lifestyle questionnaire with an electronic self-assessment health history questionnaire. This will present donors with a series of questions which they will answer on a "Yes" or "No" basis, with specific responses triggering secondary questions, facilitating the process of individual assessment. Phase two is the introduction of the individual risk assessment system similar to system introduced by the UK Blood Services in June 2021, known as FAIR, or for the assessment of individualised risk. This individualised risk assessment will include several aspects of sexual behaviour and will apply to all blood donors. The IBTS is working towards introducing this second phase later this year.

The aim of these changes is to make blood donation more inclusive and to welcome additional donors from the LGBT+ community. It is therefore essential that this progress is communicated clearly and concisely to the public. In that regard, the donor eligibility criteria changes effective from last Monday, 28 March received widespread coverage across traditional and social media. Indeed, I heard a discussion on it on the radio yesterday on my way up to Dublin. The IBTS also issued a press release and highlighted the changes across its various social media platforms. The IBTS advised that it has made changes to its website to reflect the new criteria and confirmed that all donor information documentation has been updated to reflect these changes. The Minister welcomes the decision of the board of the IBTS to introduce these changes and commends it on its progress in making blood donation more inclusive while ensuring the safe supply of blood in Ireland.Senator Sherlock compared the four-month waiting list with the three-month waiting list in the UK. I will raise that matter with the Minister.

I have found in various Departments that we sometimes put things up on social media and do not follow up on them with a robust measurement of how many followers we have or anything like that. I sometimes wonder, even when information is put up on social media, whether we try to get that information to the groups that matter. Departments need to be able to sell that a bit better.

Photo of Marie SherlockMarie Sherlock (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State. To pick up on his last point, the Department of Health has learned a lot about communication strategy over the past two years because it had to. It should be within the Department's wherewithal to deliver that message to the population that needs to hear it. I did not see any of the messages on social media or in the traditional media. That is not to say they were not there but the effectiveness in getting that message out leaves a lot to be desired.

I spoke about the inconsistencies and questions remain for women. We are happy to import blood from the UK and yet it is subject to a different set of rules there.

I look forward to phase 2 and the individualised risk assessment. However, I would like to see the report of the review group published by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service as soon as possible.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising the important issue of the policy changes introduced by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. Those changes make blood donation more inclusive and welcome additional donors from the LGBT+ community. We must ensure a safe supply of blood. This is a positive development. However, the Senator is right. I did not realise we had to import blood.

I give blood. There are many times when people, because of a hectic lifestyle, are unable to donate in their own towns. I make time to go down to D'Olier Street and make a donation. I will ring them today and see can they fit me in because I might have a bit of time. It is a great honour and privilege to give blood. It is a life-saving gift to a person in their time of need.

The Senator called for the prompt communication of these policies through a press release from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. Perhaps we can do more in that regard. I am glad the Senator raised that point.

I welcome the decision of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service to introduce these changes. These positive changes make blood donation more inclusive and welcome additional donors. In this difficult time, that is to be welcomed.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 11.23 a.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 11.33 a.m. Sitting suspended at 11.23 a.m. and resumed at 11.33 a.m.