Health Canada has loosened decades-old restrictions on gay men giving blood — but it's still not nearly enough, Hamilton advocates say.
Health Canada announced Wednesday it will allow men to donate blood if they haven't had sex with a man in the last five years, a change in policy that will go into effect in the coming weeks. The previous policy barred men from giving blood if they'd had sex with a man, even once, since 1977. It was enacted almost 30 years ago in an attempt to keep HIV infected blood out of the supply.
"If a man has not had sex with another man within the last five years and meets all the other eligibility criteria to be a blood donor, he will be able to donate blood," said Dana Devine, the vice-president of medical, scientific and research affairs at Canadian Blood Services.
"This is a very significant change for us."
But some say the current ban is still discriminatory. "It's still prejudicial towards gay men," said Stan Talbott, the president of Prime Timers Hamilton, a fraternal organization for gay and bisexual Hamilton men.
Talbott is married to a man and is in a monogamous relationship. "But I still wouldn't be able to donate blood if I wanted to," he said. "It's still discrimination on the basis of my sexuality."
Tim McClemont, the president of the board of directors at the AIDS network of Hamilton, Halton, Haldimand, Norfolk and Brant, told CBC Hamilton that while Health Canada has made a step in the right direction, it's not far enough. "Five years? What does that do for a monogamous couple?" McClemont asked. "Do straight people have to deal with that? Of course not."
Devine has acknowledged the length of the deferral won't satisfy everyone. "We do recognize that it's a limited number of gay men who have been abstinent for the last five years," she said.
The new rules would likely have more bearing on men who had "experimented" as teenagers and now live a "heterosexual lifestyle," or men who had been raped as boys, Devine said.
HIV rates changing, Health Canada says
According to Health Canada, trends in the reporting of HIV infection rates have shifted since 1985, when HIV reporting began.
In the early stages of the disease's emergence, men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for over 80 per cent of all HIV cases. Although MSM is still the predominant exposure category in Canada, levels have dropped significantly over the years.
In 2011, 48.6 per cent of all adult positive HIV test reports with a known exposure category were attributed to MSM. Men who have sex with men still accounted for 61.4 per cent of positive HIV test reports among adult males.
Devine says that while donor screening is still the "first line of defense" against blood contamination, a lot has changed when it comes to screening methods. Canadian Blood Services' ability to test for blood-borne viruses has improved to the point that tests are much more sensitive than ever before, she says.
"So while testing isn't 100 per cent perfect, it's much better than it was in the 1980's when the deferrals were put in place," she said. Health Canada has estimated the risk of transmission of HIV through blood transfusion in Canada to be one in 752,000.
"We have made a decision that a change to five years would be a safe practice for the blood supply in Canada," Devine said.
Supply and demand
Allowing gay men to donate would also help bolster Canada's blood supply, which can sometimes run perilously low, McClemont says.
Canadian Blood Services uses an indicator called the Blood Signal when there is a greater need for blood. The Blood Signal is a visual and auditory icon that is used during increased times of need throughout the year as a reminder that the need for blood in hospitals is great.
"A gay man will look at that and say 'well, that doesn't apply to me,'" McClemont said.
The changes in blood screening will take effect by the summer, Canadian Blood Services says, to allow time to adjust screening procedures.
Australia and the United Kingdom have also reduced their bans. McClemont says more work needs to be done on the issue, but this move is a start.
"So while I think this is a good step forward, it's also a cautious step."