Italy’s health minister has condemned a decision by one of the country’s biggest hospitals to stop a gay man from giving blood.

A 39-year-old writer was turned away from the Policlinico hospital in Milan after telling staff members he was gay. Paolo Pedote told the Guardian he had been informed that, although Italian law allowed him to give blood, it was the hospital’s “internal policy” not to accept gay male donors.

Health Minister Francesco Storace called the decision “very serious and unacceptable.” Storace vowed to head a formal inquiring saying: “We intend to determine administrative responsibility. What has happened could also be grounds for a criminal investigation.”

Paolo Rebulla, director of Policlinico’s transfusion centre, said he stood by his staff’s decision. Rebulla said his department has a “fundamental duty to protect patients who receive blood.”

In an interview with the Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera, Rebulla said the hospital’s policy was to exclude adult males who had had sex with other men in the previous five years. He said “authoritative studies and a broad medical literature” showed they were more likely to be HIV-positive.

He said tests carried out on donated blood had “margins of error, albeit very small.”

Until 2001, prospective donors in Italy were required to declare themselves as “non homosexuals” prior to giving blood. A law introduced 10 years earlier had placed an outright ban on the giving of blood by anyone who had engaged in previous “man to man sexual relations.”

Gay rights groups said over the weekend they had received several reports from other parts of Italy of hospitals implementing policies similar to the one adopted in Milan.

“The incident which took place at the Policlinico is merely the tip of an iceberg that rarely surfaces in the press,” representatives from the Arcigay foundation said. “It is a widely spread phenomenon because of the homophobia of many health workers.”

Previously, Storace’s predecessor, Girolamo Sirchia, downplayed the controversy, saying “the only priority for doctors is the care of the sick.”

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