Since 1985, Health Canada has had a strict blood donation policy that prevents gay and bisexual men from donating their blood if they have ever had sexual relations with another man. However, according to the Canadian Blood Services, this policy may soon change from a lifetime ban preventing homosexual men from donating blood, to allowing gay men to donate blood if they have withstood having sex with another man for a minimum of 5 years.
Annie Barrette of the Canadian Blood Services says the change can be implemented as soon as this summer if Health Canada approves the new policy.
This would add Canada to the list of countries that have reformed their gay blood donation policies. The United Kingdom, Australia, Sweden and Japan allow gay men to donate blood after one-year of sexual abstinence with other men. South Africa uses a six-month abstinence period before gay men are eligible to donate.
The controversial gay blood ban reform has started some debate in both the medical and public domain. The ban serves as a medical safety precaution, but can also be viewed as discriminatory towards the gay community.
The ban was originally introduced following the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Gay men were and still are grouped in the high-risk medical category for contracting HIV, which can be transmittable through donated blood.
End the Ban, a pro-gay blood donation community consisting of The Canadian Federation of Students, Canadian AIDS Society and EGALE (Equality For Gays and Lesbians Everywhere)wishes to end the lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with other men. End the Ban argues the restrictions are based on outdated science, and suggests the deferral periods be formed around individual behaviours, not demographics.
Openly gay man Nathaniel Bacon, 26, from Toronto, thinks the ban adjustment is no reason for celebration. “Blood. It’s in you to give, unless you’re a homo,” Bacon says, “…now all we have to do is abstain from all sexual experiences for a minimum of 5 years and we’re free to help out. How progressive of [the Canadian Blood Services]! This is 1968, right?”
Nonetheless, the Canadian Blood Services still stand by their policy.
“The regulations are not based on sexual orientation,” Barrette says, “the men who have sex with men (MSM) policy is rooted in current statistics and scientific evidence.”
According to Statistics Canada, gay and bisexual men and other MSM continue to comprise the greatest proportion (46.6 per cent) of new HIV infections in 2011, which was slightly higher than the proportion they comprised in 2008 (44.1 per cent).
Since the Canadian Blood Services took over the operation of the blood system from the Red Cross in 1998, there have been no cases of transfusion-transmitted HIV or Hepatitis C through blood donations due the heavy screening procedures.
“Our screening standards are in place for the safety of the donor, and for the person receiving the blood. But, there still exists a window period during which HIV may not be detectable,” says Barrette.
The lengthy donor questionnaire and pre-screening interviews help the Canadian Blood Services eliminate other potential risk donors before they even donate any blood. Not only gay men are barred from donating blood within a specified time-period. There are other groups, such as people with body piercings or tattoos, drug users, and even women who have had sex with a man who has had a MSM encounter that also must follow a deferral period before they are allowed to donate blood.
“[The screening process] helps the nursing staff address any risks to potential donors; risks that may not be tested for in our labs,” Barrette says, “for example, a history of a heart attack may increase the risk of the patient experiencing chest pain; of course, this is not something that we can test for. We just want to reduce the possibility of the blood recipient potentially suffering adverse effects.”
Justine Feeney, a medical lab technician and hematologist at Lennox and Addington County General Hospital in Napanee, Ont., doesn’t believe the gay blood donation ban intentionally means to discriminate gay men and their lifestyles. Feeney sees the real issue lying in the donation process.
“[The Canadian Blood Services] have a tremendous amount of pressure on them to give out the safest products they can,” says Feeney.
“If they could implement a rapid test for STDs and HIV down the road like they do with testing for anemia, that may help allow gay men to be able to donate blood,” says Feeney, “I think everyone should at least have the chance to donate. I think that if people are willing to give blood, they should at least have that right.”