The Magen David Adom (MDA) blood donation center in Israel has a relatively unknown policy that prohibits the blood of Ethiopians from being used in life-saving medical procedures, and the Ethiopian community is in shock.
“He sits, a needle enters his body, a considerable amount of blood is drawn from him, and yet the minute he turns his head they toss his blood to the garbage,” says Gadi Yevrakan, a Lieutenant in the Israeli army reserves and a law student.
Israel’s Ynet News 2 broke the story on Tuesday and reporters verified the prohibitive practice in an interview with Israel’s Health Ministry.
But Yervrakan is not the only one speaking out. As a member of Rehovot’s Ethiopian Community he says there will be a large scale Sunday protest.
We fight and die in the army, go on to study, but that is not enough. It’s inconceivable that a person comes to donate blood and is tricked into thinking that he is saving another life
Lt. Yervrakan cannot believe that an enlightened country such as Israel is making broad based public health policy based on the color of a person’s skin. “I didn’t choose to be born this color,” he argues, “but I’m proud of the choice that God made for me.” He’s proud to be a Jew he admits, but he doesn’t feel that Israel is proud of him.
“We fight and die, we go on to study,” he adds, “but that is not enough.”
He claims that his community is alarmed at the reports and will be holding massive demonstrations on Sunday to protest the policy.
But he is not the only one that is speaking out.
In an interview with Arutz Sheva 7 News, a Member of Israel’s Knesset (MK), Israel’s parliament, Pnina Tamano-Shata claims she was also turned away from an MDA blood donation center. The MDA team came to the Kenesset to take donations from parliament donors but would not take hers because she came to Israel from Ethiopia.
When she challenged the decision, a member of the donation center team allegedly told her that they were just following current Health Ministry policy. The MDA representative told her that they were not allowed to take blood from people from countries with high incidence of HIV, or people that had visited those countries for more than one year.
The policy regarding Ethiopian Jews and blood donations was set many years ago. The policy’s purpose, to protect the Israeli public health, was centered on the findings that Ethiopian immigrants had a higher rate of HIV.
Tamano-Shata argued stating that she had lived in Israel since age 3. Surely any blood borne pathogens would be identified during the routine tests that all donated blood was subjected to. There was no difference, she argued, between her blood and the blood of a person with lighter skin.
She was finally told that if she insisted she could donate the blood but her donation may never be used.
MK Tamano-Shata may have anticipated this result, however, as the entire conversation was recorded by a friend on their cellular phone, and her report made it to the media.
The result of the exchange? Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein expressed “shock,” and told the MDA team to leave. “I thought this was behind us, but it turns out today that I was wrong,” said Speaker Edelstein. “This is an unacceptable phenomenon.”
As it turns out, MK Tamano-Shata is also a member on a committee that is working to change Israel’s blood donation criteria and may have known she was going to be refused. The purpose of her visit may have been to record the event to place the light of public scrutiny on the Health Ministry.
In an official response to the events leading up to the news story and the outrage that has begun to surface in public sentiment a spokesman for the MDA, Yeruham Mendola made this statement:
The guidelines set by the Ministry of Health determines that anyone who was born, or who lived for over a year since 1977 in central Africa, southeast Asia or the Carribean islands, or has spent over six months in Britain, or was in France, Ireland or Portugal for over 10 years – can chose not to donate blood, or donate blood, which is then marked, and know that it will not be used for transfusions.
Vered Yahalom M.D., Megan David Adom’s Deputy Chief also commented on the policy. He urged people to remember that donated blood was used to “save people’s lives.” He further stated that the Health Ministry guidelines were in place to ensure that the recipients of blood donations would be safe from blood born disease.
Citing blood testing technology as “not enough,” he is concerned that many diseases have what he calls “a window” in which they cannot be detected.
“Like HIV, where even a test cannot discover if the blood is contaminated.” The guidelines, he defends, are “not an Israeli invention and they are accepted throughout the entire modern world.”
President Shimon Peres got wind of the incident and immediately denounced it. Following his review he ordered Prime Minister Benyamin to call MK Pnina Tamano-Shata to inform her that he had ordered the Health Minister Yael German to “take care of the matter.”
German’s response was immediate. “It is an unbearably absurd matter that in 2013, in the state of Israel, Ethiopian Jews who arrived in the country more than 25 years ago still can’t donate blood.”
Does Israel have a policy that prevents Ethiopians—Ethiopian immigrants specifically, not necessarily people of Ethiopian descent—from donating blood? Does the Health Ministry currently maintain a policy that the blood poses a significant health risk to the public?
But proponents of the policy claim that it is neither physiognomy—the judging of a person’s quality based on physical features—nor racism. It is merely a rule based on geographical statistics for the prevalence of blood born disease.
Opponents argue otherwise. Many immigrants have been in the country for decades and any diseases that may be carried by a donor have had ample time to manifest themselves. Just treat the blood like every other sample, and let the science to the screening.
MK Aryeh Deri, concluded saying, “it is unacceptable that because of one’s origin, without any testing, blood will not be taken from members of a certain group.”
By Matt Darjany