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“Race policy lowered HIV risk*

A CONTROVERSIAL policy that barred many blacks and even President Mbeki from donating blood led to a substantial drop in HIV-tainted blood supplies, a study has found.

"Hundreds or more would have been infected from blood transfusions* without the race-based policy, said senior author Dr Michael Busch of the Blood Systems Research Institute in San Francisco.

Even so, Busch said that was not an argument in favour of the policy. Rather, it underscored "the dilemma of trying to maintain a safe blood supply in the challenging arena of epidemic infectious disease and social expectations*.

The policy barring many blacks from donating blood was in effect from 1999 to 2005. The research looked at nearly 900000 blood donations collected from the policy's first year as it was phased in, and compared that with almost 800000 donations collected from 2001/2, when the policy was in full swing.

HIV was detected in 0,17 percent of donations in the earlier period, but that dropped 50 percent to 0,08 percent in the second year.

The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 10 percent of HIV/Aids infections globally are acquired from blood transfusions.

The risks are highest in countries including South Africa, where it is believed 5,3 million to more than six million people are infected, the highest number worldwide.

Evidence suggests that 24 HIV-infected units of blood entered SA's blood supply in 1999.

More recently, the blood bank's policy of excluding donations from sexually active gay men has also come under fire.

Officials say that, too, is now under review. "Black individuals, who comprise 79 percent of the population contributed only 4,2 percent of the blood supply in 2001/2, down from 10 percent in 1999,* the authors said.

The Department of Health in December 2004 declared that race was not an acceptable risk indicator, and officials decided last February to adopt a new policy.

Now individual blood samples are tested. - Sapa-AP