LGBTQ activists hope officials let gay men donate blood amid COVID-19 cancellations
'It's very frustrating... you can't donate even though you would be an eligible match'
When Dr. Dustin Costescu saw a plea from Canadian Blood Services (CBS) to donate blood amid a spike of cancellations due to COVID-19, it was just another reminder that no matter how healthy and willing he is, he can't help.
"When we see notices about blood shortages and the urgent need for donation, it's very frustrating to be in a position where you can't donate even though you would be an eligible match," said Costescu, a sexual health specialist and associate professor at McMaster University.
The organization won't allow gay and bisexual men like Costescu to donate blood if they are sexually active under its current guidelines — despite seeing people cancel appointments amid calls for social distancing to avoid spreading the coronavirus.
The rules state that men can't have sex with other men for three months before being allowed to give blood because the organization believes the cohort is a high-risk group, as they account for the largest proportion of new HIV infections reported in Canada.
Gay and bisexual men have faced restrictions since the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s, when thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV or hepatitis C from donated blood.
A lifetime ban was lifted in 2013, when Canada moved to a policy that allowed donations from men who said they had abstained from sex with other men for five years. In 2016, that deferral period was dropped to one year and In 2019, it fell to three months.
The deferral is also in place because early HIV infection might not appear during a blood test. Tests also can't identify if someone has been in contact with an HIV-positive person.
But there are tests which can detect HIV in blood within nine days, prompting LGBTQ advocates to ask why a waiting period of three months is necessary.
And while Canada's policy is ahead of the U.S. and Australia, other countries, including Italy and Spain, use a behaviour-based approach. That approach screens out gay men who have unprotected sex with multiple partners, as opposed to those who are in monogamous relationships.
COVID-19, meanwhile, cannot be contracted through blood, Peter MacDonald, director of donor relations for Canadian Blood Services in Atlantic Canada, told CBC News on Monday. That means even if someone donated with the virus it wouldn't contaminate the blood supply.
"I think we've demonstrated the blood system is safe even with, you know, West Nile Virus, Chagas [disease], SARS, Zika [virus], H1N1," he said.
"We need people to come out because patients will need blood ... not because of COVID-19, but due to cancer patients, accidents — it all continues."
CBS declined an interview related to their donation policy but said in a statement "we empathize with individuals who, for many different reasons, cannot give blood. The research required to generate evidence-based changes to the eligibility criteria for blood donation is ongoing."
WATCH | Canada's chief public health officer urges Canadians to donate blood
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said on Tuesday there is an "ongoing need."
"We need blood doors to book and keep their appointments to prevent shortages. Canadian Blood Services has robust cleaning, inspection control and screening practices in place to protect all donors, staff and volunteers," she said.
Costescu also said now is the time to donate because all the cancellations and closures have freed up time to give blood, especially before Canada sees a spike in cases that aren't travel-related — but the policies preventing gay and bisexual men to donate are working against that.
"This is a good example where regulations designed to protect the public are ineffective at doing so and may in fact increase harm," Costescu said.
Deirdre Pike, a local LGBTQ activist, found her donor card lying around her home during her "staycation" amid closures related to COVID-19. Pike felt "called to help" and started donating after her partner got cancer and received a transfusion.
The policy doesn't impact her, so she still plans to donate. But she also says she's going to file a complaint, as she does every time to demonstrate her opposition to the policy.
"I didn't even really understand, when I was younger, if that was me too because I'm a lesbian and I wasn't going to show up at one more place where I would be discriminated against, but that wasn't the case," she said.
"To deny that life-giving opportunity to gay and bi-sexual men who have the same ways of wanting to be a part of the community as anyone else would is so offensive."
Costescu, and many others including Pike, say CBS' research isn't rooted in science, but homophobic stereotypes. They don't think there's any reason to rule out all gay and bi men, especially if they practice safe sex, don't have sex often or are in a monogamous relationship.
Costescu hopes CBS will suspend the policy as the pandemic continues to hit Canada — or even better, he hopes the organization gets rid of the rule altogether.
"In the LGBTQ community, you have people who, for a long time and (for) many reasons have a desire to donate and participate in society and help their community members," he said.
"[They] are highly motivated, in this instance, to provide blood products and I think that would be enough to negate the inconvenience of having now to travel to a blood mobile or a CBS office."
With files from Preston Mulligan