Why does Canadian Blood Services still exclude gay donors?

By Erica Lenti - Published on June 3, 2016
a doctor drawing blood from a patient
Canadian Blood Services is awaiting word from Health Canada about a proposed change to the five-year wait time for gay men to donate blood.

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Jonathan Scott, of Toronto, has heard a few cautionary tales about the blood donation process. In one, a young man ends up on the calling list for Canadian Blood Services. They call his home number and chat with his mother about donating. He has an uncommon blood type, they say, and so his mother encourages him to give. Inadvertently outed by the organization, he is left having to explain that he can’t: he’s gay. In another, male students who have had sex with men are publicly cast aside during university blood drives on campus.

These exclusionary experiences are what drove Scott and his colleagues at the Young Liberals of Canada to start a petition against what many call an unjust ban on blood donation. That was two years ago, and not much has changed since.

Currently, Canadian men who have had sex with men in the past five years are ineligible to give blood. This is part of Health Canada’s attempt to lower the risk of contaminating the blood supply with HIV, a policy that has been in place since the Canadian Red Cross’s tainted blood scandal in the 1980s. In the years after the public health crisis, Canadian Blood Services was established as a non-profit arm’s length organization to oversee and manage the country’s blood supply. Decades later, this aspect of its donor policy is no longer viewed by LGBTQ and some health care advocates as a safety measure, but a discriminatory policy. According to the CBS, lifting the ban entirely is years away.

The ban harms more than just the “G” in LGBTQ. Transgender women also fear being inadvertently outed by Canadian Blood Services, because medical professionals consider them anatomically male.

In March, Canadian Blood Services sent a formal request to Health Canada to reduce the abstinence period for men who have sex with men from five years to one. The request is rooted in scientific data after months of testing, and Health Canada has confirmed it expects a decision by the end of the summer. Dana Devine, Canadian Blood Services chief medical and scientific officer,  says she is optimistic the government will accept the proposed changes.

But despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declaration that he wants to live in a Canada where gay men can donate blood freely, Devine says removal of the ban, without an abstinence period, can’t realistically be expected for at least four years — Canadian Blood Services will need about three years to collect data, she says, and another year to allow for changes to legislation. Before then, Canadian Blood Services must improve screening processes and better educate donors about risk. “We need to identify to Health Canada that we can allow it safely and reliably,” she says — and the organization simply isn’t there yet, even with the weight of Liberal party pressure.

In terms of actual policy, the federal government is keeping mum on the issue. “Canada has one of the safest blood systems in the world due to its strict licensing, inspection and surveillance requirements,” Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette wrote in an email.

Canadian Blood Services screens all donated blood. This isn’t always foolproof, Devine explains: it takes at least 14 days after contraction for a positive HIV result to show up on screening tests. Studies, however, show that the likelihood of a false negative on screening tests is slim to none.

Gay men still account for the highest incidences of HIV contraction, based on a 2014 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada. But Canadian Blood Services says it intends to try to move toward a behavioural-based system that identifies risks based on an individual’s history as opposed to sexual orientation.

Medical officials agree: “The current policy is counterproductive in terms of loss of donors, loss of good will, student protests, donor boycotts and lawsuits, among other negative effects,” HIV researcher Mark A. Wainberg and McGill University’s Norbert Gilmore wrote in a paper for Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2010. “This no longer makes sense,” Wainberg said in an interview following the publication of his paper. “And with each passing year it makes less sense.”

Systems that measure a person’s history over sexual orientation are currently in place in Spain and Italy. In Italy, physicians screen donors; in Canada, there are not enough general practitioners or the resources to do so.

But Scott says moving to a behaviour-based system is the only just option. “It should be an element of what you do and not who you are,” he says.

Since the Young Liberals’ petition was launched in late 2014, it has garnered more than 1,000 signatures. Scott says Canadian Blood Services is aware of the issue, but the organization is not moving at the pace the Young Liberals would like to see.

Canadian Blood Services has made efforts to improve the situation for the LGBTQ community. Several “ally clinics” have been set up, often in conjunction with Pride, where individuals can donate blood on behalf of their queer friends or family who cannot. Research labs in Vancouver also accept donations from gay men and other individuals who are typically excluded from giving blood, and use it for further studies.

Canadian Blood Services, meanwhile, continues its summer campaign to attract blood donors. At least 200,000 Canadians must donate by July 1 in order to maintain the current blood supply for hospitals across the country. “It’s kind of a conflicting message, given this story,” Devine says. Indeed, if gay men could donate, that quota would be much easier to fill — and bring a sense of justice to many.

Erica Lenti is a Toronto-based journalist who covers mental health and LGTBQ and women’s issues.

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