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Dr. Gary Levy, who heads Canada's largest organ transplant program at Toronto's University Health Network, said he was unaware of the new policy on organ donations. ((CBC))

A number of organ donation groups said Monday that they are unaware of new Health Canada regulations that mean sexually active gay men, injection drug users and other groups considered high risk will no longer be accepted as organ donors.

The new rules, which came into effect in December, are similar to the regulations for determining who can donate blood. Those rules exclude groups that are at high risk of transmitting infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C and B.

Officials at several transplant programs in the country said because they were unaware of the new regulations, they would continue to consider all potential donor organs.

"We have not been informed, first of all, that Health Canada is considering this," said Dr. Gary Levy, who heads Canada's largest organ transplant program at Toronto's University Health Network. "Obviously if Health Canada wishes to discuss that, we would hope they would engage all stakeholders."

Dr. Peter Nickerson, director of Transplant Manitoba, which procures organs in that province, said transplant programs must now by law interview family members of the donor as part of the screening process.

"We'll be asking about things like travel, history of infectious disease, whether they've [donors] been in jail — that puts you at increased risk," Nickerson said. "Have they been an IV drug abuser in the past? Have they had tattoos? There's a whole list of questions we go through."

They are also asked about the donor's sexual orientation. The donor will be excluded if the donor is a man who had sex with another man in the previous five years.

Health Canada had contracted the Canadian Standards Association in 2003 to come up with standardized guidelines to ensure the safety of the organ donation system.

Transplant programs have been screening potential donors, but in some cases use organs from people in high-risk groups if they've tested negative for diseases. The new legislation means that practice must stop.

A spokeswoman for Health Canada confirmed the new regulations in an e-mail, but the department didn't make anyone available to explain the changes.

Focus should be on behaviour: gay activist

Levy said organ donors shouldn't be held to the same high standards as blood donors because the stakes for the organ recipient are higher. 

"Organ donation and the opportunity to save a life at a specific time — we have no substitute therapies," Levy said.

Levy estimates that out of 100 organ donors at his Toronto hospital every year, about seven will be rejected because of the new regulations. About 4,000 Canadians are waiting for an organ transplant.

Some in the gay community complained that the new policy is wrong-headed and that Health Canada should focus on risky sexual behaviours, not sexual orientation.

"I think it's more of an issue of anal sex, anal intercourse, than it is to do with whether someone is gay or straight," said Dean Robinson, a gay activist.