The Steam Room is broadcast on GaySA Radio every Wednesday from 19:00 to 21:00, and is brought to you by the National Department of Health’s Phila programme.

The Phila programme encourages all South Africans to be inspired to live, and is about keeping fit, knowing about your health and body, eating well and taking action about your health in general.

In episode 9 of the Steam Room, we talk discuss the ins and outs of blood donation as it pertains to men who have sex with men.

Common misconceptions about blood donation and men who have sex with men

Ivor Hobbs is the regional marketing manager of the South African National Blood Service. Hobbs explains that the misconception that gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men are not allowed to donate blood has its roots in the concerns that doctors had when HIV became more prevalent in the 1980s.

While men who have sex with men are still prohibited from donating blood in some countries, this is not the case in South Africa, and the only requirement is that a man must be in a monogamous relationship. Some people also believe that having a tattoo means that you are not allowed to donate blood. Hobbs says that this isn’t true, but that a person must wait six months after getting a tattoo before being allowed to donate again.

Minimum requirements for donating blood

To be able to donate blood, a person must adhere to the following requirements:

• You must be older than 16, but younger than 65.

• You must weigh at least 50 kilograms.

• You must eat something prior to your donation.

• You must be in good health.

• You must have a safe lifestyle.

A person’s sexuality is not grounds for being denied the opportunity to donate blood, but you may not be allowed to donate if you have low iron levels, low blood pressure, if you are using certain types of medication (like blood thinners), if you recently visited an area where malaria is prevalent, or if you have gotten a tattoo in the past six months.

How does blood donation work?

Ivor Hobbs describes the process of blood donation as a relatively simple procedure that supplies the country’s hospitals with the blood that is so often required for patients.

When you arrive at a regional blood donor centre or a blood drive, you will complete a questionnaire to assess the state of your health, after which you will sit down for a one-on-one interview, during which the questionnaire will be discussed. You will then undergo an iron level and blood pressure test, and your pulse will be taken. The donation itself takes about 8 to 10 minutes, and some additional samples are also taken for testing. You will get biscuit and cooldrink after donating, and will be eligible to donate again after 56 days.

After blood is donated, it is put into a temperature-controlled box and shipped to the nearest processing centre. The whole blood is processed and then converted into platelets, red blood cells and plasma. In the mean time, samples of the donated blood are sent to testing facilities in Johannesburg and Durban, where they are extensively tested for HIV 1 and 2, Hepatitis B and C and syphilis. This includes a zoology test and a nucleic acid amplification test, which physically detects the presence of a virus, dramatically reducing the window period. After testing, the blood is sent to blood banks at hospitals, where doctors place orders according to patients’ needs.

Blood and its different components have a shelf life, though – plasma can be frozen for a year, red blood cells can be used for 42 days, and platelets can only be used for 5 days – which is why regular donations from the public are so important.

Hobbs explains that all donations are useful, but that certain blood types are especially sought after.

Blood types

Blood types are divided into type O, B, AB and A, and then subdivided into positive and negative rhesus factors. The most common blood type is O, and the rarest blood type is AB. Type O-negative is known as the universal donor, as this blood can be given to anyone, regardless of their blood type. Type AB-positive is known as the universal receptor, and can receive blood from any other person, regardless of blood type. People with A and AB blood types are encouraged to donate platelets.

Why is it important to donate blood?

Hobbs emphasises that there is no substitute for human blood, which is why the SANBS is reliant on regular voluntary donations from South Africans who are able to do so. The vast majority of donated blood is used for women who experience complications in childbirth, for cancer patients, and for use in major surgeries. One donation can save up to three people’s lives, but less than 1% of South Africans are regular donors, often for the simple reason that people are afraid of needles.

“If you really can’t get over it and want to make a difference, then please help us by arranging a blood drive or bringing a friend to donate,” implores Hobbs.

To arrange a blood drive, call 0800 119031, or visit the South African National Blood Service’s website.

Click on the player below to listen to our full discussion about donating blood on episode 9 of the Steam Room, brought to you by the National Department of Health’s Phila programme.