Israeli Health Minister 'Not Responsible' for Delayed Implementation of New Blood Donor Rules

Eighteen months after a Health Ministry panel recommending easing decades-old restrictions, the bans on Ethiopian and gay blood donors are still in place.

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Ethiopian Israelis protests against discrimination in blood donations, Jerusalem, 2006.
Ethiopian Israelis protests against discrimination in blood donations, Jerusalem, 2006.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum / Baubau

While the Health Ministry continues to drag its feet about changing the criteria for blood donations from Ethiopian Israelis and gay men, sources close to Minister Yaakov Litzman deny that he is involved at all in the decision-making process.

On Monday, Haaretz reported that 18 months have passed since a special ministerial panel proposed changing the existing rules – in order to allow donations from such donors under certain conditions – but the recommendations have yet to be formally approved and no one is sure when that will happen.

“The health minister is not involved at all in the matter of examining the criteria for blood donations. This is a completely professional process, which is expected to reach a decision soon,” said sources close to Litzman yesterday.

The recommendations under discussion call for allowing blood donations from anyone of Ethiopian origin who has lived in Israel for over 10 years, and from men who have not engaged in sexual relations with other men in the preceding 12 months. There has been no official explanation of why the new policies aren’t being implemented, but one reason may be that they ease current restrictions affecting donations from gay and bisexual men.

File photo: Israelis at the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, July, 2016.Credit: Michal Fattal

Sources close to Litzman denied these claims, and say the delay in approving the recommendations stems from a disagreement between the professional staff within the Health Ministry, and not for any other reason.

On Monday, members of Israel's LGBT community, along with a number of Knesset members, called on Litzman and Health Ministry officials to adopt the suggestions of the committee, which was headed by Prof. Manfred Green, head of the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health. The panel began its work in early 2014, reviewing the subject as it is dealt with abroad, among other things, and submitted its conclusions to then-Health Ministry Director General Prof. Arnon Afek in April 2015. The conclusion: Regulations related to blood donations could be relaxed to bring Israel into line with guidelines in other countries.

Former Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamano-Shata claims Litzman is hiding behind the professional staff in the ministry “in order to hide the phobia he has from accepting blood that is not from the 'white nobility.' I would like to reassure and remind him that the committee he appointed discussed the aspects of public health, and the finest experts determined that the discrimination must be ended immediately."

Tamano-Shata herself made headlines concerning this issue when in December 2013 a special blood drive was held at the Knesset and she was not allowed to donate blood because she was born in Ethiopia, even though she has lived in Israel since she was 3.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in June 2016.Credit: Lilat Mandel

The refusal of the nation’s blood banks to accept donations from Israelis of Ethiopian origin has been a bone of contention for over 20 years. In 1996, it was revealed that thousands of units of blood donated by such individuals had been destroyed, a move that left a deep scar on the community.

In December 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration canceled its blanket ban on blood donations from homosexual and bisexual men, which had been in place since 1983. It now permits donations from men who have not had sex with other men during the previous 12 months. The Israeli committee took this FDA recommendation into account.

MK Avraham Nagosa (Likud), the chairman of the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, said Monday that a systemic "disease of concealment and discrimination" plagues the functioning of the Health Ministry and the realm of immigration affairs in general, and it must be cured in a comprehensive way. Litzman, as the person responsible for the health system, must act in order to allow people of Ethiopian origin to donate blood, added Nagosa, who said he plans on holding a committee hearing on the issue next week.

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