Politics

Gay men abstinent for a year cleared by Health Canada to donate blood

Health Minister Jane Philpott says government committed to reducing wait period further

June 20, 2016

Health Minister Jane Philpott speaks at the HealthCareCAN and the Canadian College of Health Leaders' National Health Leadership Conference in Ottawa on Monday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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Health Canada has cleared the way for gay men who abstain from sex for at least one year to donate blood — a policy shift that falls short of the Liberal Party's election pledge to eliminate the waiting period entirely.

Men who have sex with men are currently barred from blood donations if they were sexually active in a five-year period, a waiting period that advocates call far too onerous and blatantly discriminatory. Before 2013, there was a blanket ban on all donations from men engaged in same-sex intercourse.

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Canadian Blood Services, the agency that oversees the national supply of blood and blood products, applied to Health Canada earlier this year to reduce the waiting period. Now approved, the change will take effect across the country on Aug. 15.

The issue has come to the forefront in the wake of the Orlando gay club shooting that left 49 people dead and many others injured. Hundreds of donors came forward to give blood, but gay men were barred from helping other members of their community.

New wait time 'insulting': LGBT activist

B.C.-based LGBT activist Brandon Yan called this latest policy change a "tiny leap forward," but said the timing by Canadian Blood Services is "insulting" given that the change was unveiled in the middle of Pride month and following a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Yan, who has a partner, and is regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections, said a year waiting period is not much better than a lifetime ban.

"That's still a huge commitment to not have sex with each other for a long time. We would have to forgo being intimate, and having sex, and all those wonderful things ... just to give this resource that is apparently so sorely needed," he said in an interview with CBC News. "You're automatically disqualified even though your behaviour is low-risk."

Canadian Blood Services said Monday the move was "an exciting, incremental step forward in updating our blood donation criteria," while maintaining the safety of the country's blood supply.

Liberals campaigned on ending ban

Jane Philpott, Canada's health minister, said there is an "incredible desire" on the part of the government to reduce the donor period further, in keeping with their campaign promise. The platform said a Liberal government would put an end to the "discriminatory" restrictions placed on gay men.

"The Canadian Blood Services ban men who have been sexually active with men at any point in the previous five years from donating blood, even if it has been entirely safe and monogamous. This policy ignores scientific evidence and must end," the platform reads.

"I recognize that this four-year reduction in the deferral period is not a radical change, and will not change the circumstances for many [men who have sex with men] donors who are currently prevented from donating blood. That being said, I would rather see Canada take a step in the right direction than stand still," Philpott said.

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Health Minister Jane Philpott announces changes to the blood donation policy that will now allow men who have sex with men to donate blood after one year instead of five years.  1:17

The Toronto-area minister signalled that the government is studying whether the deferral period could be applied not to an entire community but rather to certain people with riskier "behavioural" patterns. In a statement, Philpott urged Canadian Blood Services to "continue to review the available research and data to ensure their policies remain evidence-based."

Talk of that sort of shift resonates with Yan — a co-ordinator with Out in Schools, a program dedicated to eliminating discrimination against the LGBT community in schools — who is a strong proponent of identifying risks to the blood supply system based on behaviour rather than identity alone.

He said the ban is particularly problematic for men in workplaces where blood drives are common as they're forced to awkwardly bow out of donating or explain why they've been targeted as a high-risk.

"There's this narrative that you're still not good enough. There's something risky about you even though we're in a long-term relationship," he said.

The ban on blood donations for men who have sex with men dates back to the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, when an outbreak of the infection ravaged the gay community and left public health officials panicked. The restrictions were put in place to protect the country's blood supply from contamination.

The majority of people infected by HIV develop a flu-like illness a month or two after the virus enters the body, hence the justification of the waiting period. However, all blood collected is eventually tested for HIV before being disseminated to those in need.

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Michael Bach on the changes to blood donor rules for men who have sex with men.  4:38

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