This article was published on September 30th, 2015
In July 2013, the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) lifted its lifetime ban on men who have sex with men from donating blood. Prior to that, if you’d had sex with a man at least once in your life, since 1977, you were banned from donating blood. The lifetime ban was replaced with a five year deferment, meaning if you’d had sex with a man during the last five years, you were still banned from donating blood. This change was introduced with the understanding that it would be evaluated for safety impacts two years post-implementation, and further changes would then be considered.
CBS has undoubtedly had a bad reputation in the gay community over the years due to this ban. It classifies gay men based on an immutable characteristic and excludes them from what is a common way to serve their community. It is doubly emphasized at universities and workplaces, with your peers wearing their “I gave blood” stickers and having them ask why you don’t have yours.
Vancouver activist, Chad Walters stated “I was infuriated. I was upset. I held that anger and frustration for years.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re in a long term monogamous relationship, it doesn’t matter if you just get the odd blow job once in a while, it doesn’t matter how safe the sex you have is. The fact that the lifetime ban was only lifted following a court case that said CBS needed to move towards lifting it doesn’t exactly endear them to the gay community.
CBS definitely acknowledges the hurt it has caused, setting up at Pride events and facing that anger directly. They have involved people like Chad to seek input from the gay community. Chad stated that his “experience has been that they are very welcoming to have conversations and engagements” and that he has “felt very supported and very invited and that they want to hold these conversations.”
Chad recently went to Ottawa to meet with CBS about a report released in June that is examining reducing the deferral time to one year for men who have sex with men. The report states that moving from the lifetime ban to a five year deferral “has shown no adverse impacts on the prevalence of HIV in donors, donor compliance, or trust in the blood system…”
CBS is certainly behind the times. Australia moved to a one year deferral as far back in 2000 and the CBS report states that this “demonstrated a low stable rate of HIV positive donations before and after implementation of this policy.” Countries such as England, Sweden, and New Zealand have also moved to a one year deferral. However, none of this takes account of the science of HIV transmission.
By lumping all men who have sex with men together, regardless of the type of sex they have or who they have it with, CBS clearly continues an unjustified discrimination. With the risk of HIV transmission during oral sex negligible (less than a 1 in 10,000 risk per exposure to HIV) combined with advanced testing, CBS is needlessly turning away donors. And of course, the chance of getting HIV from your HIV-negative monogamous partner is exactly zero. But rather than moving towards a risk-based approach to MSM, CBS would rather not have to apply the science of HIV.
It’s not just discrimination against men who have sex with men that is at issue here. CBS’ own reports states that it faces considerable challenges in meeting increased transfusion requirements associated with an aging general population. As well, the donor population is aging, with disproportionate reliance on a small number of loyal donors. Surveys of men who have sex with men indicate that a substantial number would be interested in donating, if eligible.
It is in the interest of the entire population, gay or straight, to have a safe and plentiful supply of blood. Unfortunately, CBS’ current policy based on broad generalizations is stopping that from happening. In the meantime, if you’re a gay man in Vancouver, you can do something to help by donating your blood for important research to answer questions such as:
- Can we effectively inactivate viruses rather than just detect them?
- Is it possible to produce a red cell product that can be transfused in all patients?
- Can we increase the shelf life of platelets beyond the current limit of five days?
- Can we reduce the incidence of Transfusion Related Acute Lung Injury?
There may be such an opportunity in your local area too.
Thank you, Kevin Moroso, for this article. I appreciate the information about CBS and how they have been supportive. They just flew me back and gave me the incredoible honour of accepting an award on their behalf. Also, it is great to see the information about netCAD. They also now have a OneMatch swabbing station there. Men who have been deferred for this policy are still able to donate stem cells!! Many just don’t know.
In this conversation, I personally try to make it very clear to separate “gay” as an identity from this policy. Gay men can and are donating blood for transfusion, they just so happen to fit the criteria, and to say that gay men cannot or that it is discriminatory is not true.
I also feel that it is important to bring the voice of the blood recipient into the conversation. Until you sit with someone who receives biweekly blood transfusions, it is easy to get stuck in the frame of mind that CBS is not doing enough. We MUST honour and listen to those who bear the risk.
Of course, the shift to behaviour-based screening is on the horizon. A blowjob soon won’t have the same deferral as unprotected anal sex. This change isn’t happening quickly enough, in my opinion also.