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Adrian Lomaga, a Toronto lawyer who had been fighting Héma-Québec's ban in the courts, says moving to a 12-month deferral period on blood donations by gay men is reasonable. (Canadian Press)

Gay men who wish to donate blood in Britain will no longer be banned from giving — a move also being considered by Canada.

The U.K. health department said Thursday it will lift the ban on donations by gay men as long their last sexual contact with another man was more than one year ago.

Canadian Blood Services and its counterpart Héma Québec are also reconsidering their bans. The final decision rests with Health Canada. 

Views of men who have sex with men

A research paper published in Thursday's online issue of the British Medical Journal supports the U.K. move.

Kaye Wellings, professor of sexual and reproductive health research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and colleagues surveyed 1,028 men in Britain reporting any male sexual contact and then conducted 30 in-depth interviews.

A minority, 10.6 per cent of men, reported donating blood since having penetrative sex with a man, 2.5 per cent in the past year.

Those who did said they considered the lifetime ban to be unfair, whereas a one-year deferral rule was generally considered acceptable.

Many men said they considered the lifetime ban to be unfair, discriminatory and lacking a clear rationale, whereas a one-year deferral rule was generally seen as feasible and acceptable.

"Certainly our hope is that in the near future we can move away from a permanent ban to something that is more reasonable," Jean-Paul Bédard, vice-president of public affairs for Canadian Blood Services said in an interview with CBC News.

Since the 1980s, blood agencies in several industrialized countries have permanently deferred blood donations from men who have sex with men because of the possibility of infection with HIV/AIDS.

Canadian Blood Services, Héma-Québec and blood agencies in other countries require donors to fill in a questionnaire about their medical history and potentially harmful behaviour. Intravenous drug users, people with possible exposure to Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, those who have exchanged money for sex and men who have sex with men are all permanently deferred from giving blood.

Since then, countries such as Australia, Japan, Hungary and Sweden have adopted deferral periods on donations from men who have sex with men.

Deferral periods vary, with the U.K. deciding on an 12-month deferral period. Other countries use five-year and 10-year deferrals, Bédard said.

Deferral periods

A committee will assess the latest Canadian scientific evidence and consult with stakeholders such as Health Canada and patient groups in making the change, Bédard added.

"In our case, we're absolutely certain that going from a lifetime deferral to a five-year deferral or even a one-year deferral — because that's what we were promoting a couple of years ago — would absolutely make no difference in terms of the risk of HIV [transmission]," said Marc Germain of Héma-Québec.

Lawyer Adrian Lomaga of Toronto, who has been fighting Héma-Québec's ban in the courts, welcomed the news. "Given the research I've seen to date, I think a 12-month deferral period is reasonable. I'm comfortable with that as being a deferral period in Canada," said Lomaga, who filed the lawsuit when he was a student at McGill University in Montreal.

"I don't think it would increase in any significant way the risk to the blood recipients in Canada," he told The Canadian Press.

Lomaga withdrew the case after his legal team was told by lawyers for Health Canada that the Canadian policy was under review and might be changed within the year.

With files from The Canadian Press