Number of Blood Donors From Ethiopian Community in Israel Doubles After Rule Change

The issue of Ethiopian Israelis donating blood has long been one of the most sensitive in the Israeli medical system, but new rules in July 2017 sought to address the controversy

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Blood donations taken by Magen David Adom.
Blood donations taken by Magen David Adom.Credit: Roi Engel / MDA Spokesperson
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Following a change in Health Ministry policy that now allows Israelis born in Ethiopia to donate blood, the number of donors from the Israeli-Ethiopian community has doubled in a space of a year, Haaretz has found.

The ban had been imposed due to concerns about the prevalence of diseases that can be transmitted through blood in the so-called endemic regions. However, that ban is now no longer in effect for those who have been living in Israel for at least a year. An endemic country is one in which there is heightened risk of disease.

Since the beginning of July 2017, when the new ruling came into effect, a total of 550 Ethiopian-born donors have given blood through the Magen David Adom medical organization. The medical service also has 500 Israeli-born donors from the Ethiopian community.

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The sharp increase in the number of blood donors from the community is seeming evidence that the ongoing efforts to remove impediments faced by members of the community – many of whom came to Israel in the airlifts of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 and 1991 – involve not only social issues but also medical ones.

“A change in the rules that now permits [blood] donations a year after [donors] have left an endemic region has provided us with about 550 new Ethiopian-born donors,” said Prof. Eilat Shinar, the blood services director of Magen David Adom.

In December 2016, the Health Ministry approved new criteria for blood donations focusing on limitations on three categories of donors: those of Ethiopian background; male donors who are gay; and donors over a specified age (65, but age 70 for regular blood donors).

On the recommendation of a professional panel, criteria were adopted that prevail in other developed countries. The new rules relating to Ethiopian donors only limit blood donation by those who spent more than a year in a country deemed endemic, such as Ethiopia, if they have been in Israel for less than a year.

The limitation applies to any potential blood donor who has been in an endemic region of the world, without relation to their background and includes Israelis who have spent extended time in those regions. Prior to the rule change, it simply barred Ethiopian Israelis who were born in or lived in Ethiopia for more than 12 months since 1977.

As of the end of 2016, there were 144,000 Israeli residents of Ethiopian origin, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics – including about 85,000 people born in Ethiopia and another 59,000 born in Israel to Ethiopian families.

For many decades, the issue of blood donations from the Ethiopian community had been among the most sensitive for the Israeli medical system and for Israeli society in general – after it was disclosed that thousands of units of blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants had been deliberately destroyed in the 1990s. Until last year, two decades after the scandal broke, Ethiopian-born Israelis still could not donate blood, making Israel the only country with such a policy.

In 2013, then-MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia, was turned away when she tried to donate blood. The reason given was “the special blood type of members of the Ethiopian community.”

A month later, at the urging of then-Health Minister Yael German, the professional panel was convened to examine the subject of blood donations from people deemed to be in high-risk population groups.

The panel members included experts on infectious disease and hematology, hospital blood bank directors and public health experts, including a panel member from the United States and one from Great Britain. It also included an ethicist, an Ethiopian community activist and Israel AIDS Task Force’s director general, Dr. Yuval Livnat.

Although in April 2015 the panel recommended that the criteria be changed, the standards remained in place until Haaretz disclosed the recommendations in November 2016. A month later, it was decided to make the change and bring Israel in line with most of the rest of the world. Once the decision was made, another six months of preparation were required by blood banks, which included new testing procedures.

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