Canada Lifts Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood

by Winnie McCroy

EDGE Editor

Thursday August 15, 2013

This summer, Canada lifted a 30-year ban on blood donations from gay men, but some restrictions still apply. Gay men will only be allowed to donate blood if they have abstained from having sex with another man for five years prior to their donation.

"Recent scientific data and advances in transfusion safety led us to review the exclusion of men who have had sex with another man. This change is scientifically justified and will in no way endanger the high degree of safety of blood products," Dr. Marc Germain, vice president of medical affairs at non-profit blood management organization Héma-Québec, said in a news release.

Though the policy change still discriminates against gay men who are sexually active, agency executives hope the change will pave the way for gay men to be fully integrated into the pool of blood donors in the future.

"So the message to them today is to simply bear with us," said Dana Devine, vice president of medical, scientific, and research affairs at Canadian Blood Services. "We are working toward attempting to make the opportunity for additional people to donate blood... and we just aren't quite there yet for that group of people."

The ban had been initiated in the 1980s in response to the AIDS epidemic, as HIV can be transmitted through blood transfusions, and at the time blood products could not be screened for the virus, as they are now. The policy change has been in the works for several years, and involved consultations with groups representing both perspective donors and recipients.

The Canadian AIDS Society welcomed it as a first step.

"While a five-year deferral is still too long, we see it as an important step in the right direction," Monique Doolittle-Romas, the organization's CEO, told MetroNews. "Ultimately, though, we'd like to see a model based on a donor's behavior rather than one based on sexual orientation and gender."

But other health activists argue that the policy change does little to alleviate the stigmatization of gay men and say the policy should instead focus on screening out high-risk donors of all sexual orientations. Critics of the ban have also argued that HIV-negative gay men who are in long-term monogamous relationships should be allowed to give blood if they wish.

"A five-year ban on the ability for gay men to donate blood is not science-based and is still just as discriminatory as a lifetime ban," health critic Libby Davies and Randall Garrison, critic for LGBT and queer issues, said in a statement.

"We recognize that many people will feel that this change does not go far enough, but given the history of the blood system in Canada, we see this as a first and prudent step forward on this policy," said Devine. "It's the right thing to do and we are committed to regular review of this policy as additional data emerge and new technologies are implemented."

Canada Joins Others in Ending Ban

In recent years, several other countries have amended their blood donation policies to allow gay men to give blood, many of which use a smaller window of deferral for sexually active gay men than the Canada has adopted.

Both Australia and the U.K. allow gay men who have abstained from sex with another man for one year to donate, while South Africa requires only a six-month period of deferral.

In comments to Metronews, Greta Bauer, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Western University in London, Ont., called the length of the deferral excessively cautious, saying a study in Australia did not see an increase in contaminated blood donations when it moved to a 12-month deferral policy.

Bauer also noted that the new policy might actually carry some risk. A British study found that 11 percent of men who have sex with men said they had given blood, even though they knew they were not supposed to. When asked why, some said they felt they didn’t pose a risk. But others donated blood for a different reason.

"Another reason that they gave was the perception that the policy was blatantly unfair. And I’m not sure with the move to a five-year policy if it’s going to increase the perception of fairness to the extent that people will be more compliant with it versus the lifetime deferral," said Bauer, adding that if the goal of the policy is safety, good compliance is key.

In the United States, however, a lifetime ban still remains in place, despite recent warnings by the American Red Cross that the U.S. blood supply is dangerously low. They join America’s Blood Centers and the AABB, a blood donation advocacy group, in their support of removing the U.S. ban.

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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