KHOPOTSO: Dr Loyiso Mpuntsha relates the story of how she experienced rejection at the hands of the South African National Blood Service (SANBS), formerly known as the South African National Blood Transfusion Services.
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: In fact, I got rejected. One time around 1997 I was going around a shopping mall and there was this stall of blood transfusion service people where they were marketing or inviting people to donate blood. And as I was passing through there were two white ladies and I tried to look very interested, tried to pick up a pamphlet and look at what they’re doing. But it was total reaction that no one spoke to me. And, in fact, it just said ‘just go away’ because the person who came after me, walking along, was greeted, invited to donate blood. It was another white woman. So, that said to me, ‘no business to do with that’.
KHOPOTSO: Mpuntsha never questioned why she was treated that way. In fact, that was her first and last contact with the blood service. It never crossed her mind that almost 10 years later, she would be the Chief Executive Officer of the same organisation that discriminated against her.
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: I never thought, really, until I worked with the Department of Health and until I saw that there’s this organisation and there was a job in the advert. But before that I hadn’t interacted with the Blood Transfusion Service.
KHOPOTSO: This proud mother of three daughters took over the Chief Executive-ship at the SANBS in April. Recently, the SANBS adopted a new way of testing blood – the Nucleic Acid Testing or NAT method ‘ deemed to be much more specific in identifying HIV-contaminated blood. This method resulted in the recent elimination of race as a policy to exclude black people ‘ seen as a high-risk population for HIV infection – from donating blood. But while that controversy is now over, there still remains the question of why men who have sex with men ‘ also a perceived high-risk group for HIV – cannot donate blood. The SANBS deems unsafe blood from a man who has had sex with another man in the last five years.
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: We might reduce it because we’re having now more accurate testing methodologies and techniques. But before we do that we need to have some confidence in the new testing mechanism. We’ll go into those with some research and when we say now we have confidence that if you’ve had risky behaviour less than 12 months ago, then it’s very risky. But if it was before 12 months, that risk is minimised. We can still take and use your blood. But we need to be very stringent in that because viral diseases are known to be very difficult to eradicate.
KHOPOTSO: I put it to Dr Mpuntsha that: Why, in the light of a safer testing method such as the NAT system being available, is sexual orientation still a criterion to qualify or disqualify a potential blood donor?
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: Yes’¦ You know, because if we don’t exclude that and just depend on the test we can do a lot of unnecessary tests where we won’t be able to use the blood. And doing a blood test, and processing, and preserving the blood ‘ you put chemicals in, you put re-agents in, you treat the blood, you put it in a refrigerator. So, there’s a cost to it. So, the costs would escalate so much because we’re testing everybody who donates without saying ‘is it good enough to even test’?
KHOPOTSO: She continues.
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: For men who have sex with men, it has been identified world-wide that they have a higher risk. I know that in South Africa the focus is on people who have high risk going across these categories, but especially with heterosexual(s). It is because (of) that there has not been a specific targeted research for men who have sex with men, which now is what we’re looking at embarking on’¦ At that level we’ve started negotiations, talking with the Human Sciences Research Council to assist us in looking into this matter.
KHOPOTSO: It’s undoubtedly a tough job that requires courage and relies on good relations with the public, trying to strike a balance between pleasing some and annoying others. But this former medical doctor says she loves the challenge.
Dr LOYISO MPUNTSHA: Some of the issues relate to your human rights and issues that relate to your Constitutional right as a donor as well as a recipient. But as a service provider you need to also protect the recipient who doesn’t have a choice because if they don’t receive blood they’ll die’¦ they have a condition that is limiting. They can’t perform their life activities. So, you come in in the middle as a service provider and you have to balance both ends. So, I was aware of the challenges.