Nova Scotia

Canadian Blood Services wants to eliminate wait time to give blood for men who have sex with men

Canadian Blood Services has submitted a proposal to Health Canada to lift the wait time a person must abstain from sex in order to give blood when it comes to the category of men who have sex with men. But some advocates say it's too little, too late.

'This could have happened a long time ago'

In 2016, Health Canada approved Canadian Blood Services’ proposal to reduce the blood donation ineligibility period for men who have sex with men from five years to one year. The wait time was reduced again in 2018 to three months. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

It will take community engagement for Canadian Blood Services to regain the trust of LGBTQ people despite the organization's ongoing efforts to eliminate the blood donation wait time for men who have sex with men, say advocates for marginalized communities.

Canadian Blood Services intends to ask Health Canada to drop the ineligibility period that requires men to wait three months since their last sexual contact with a man before donating blood, and instead adopt screening based on sexual behaviour for all donors. 

It's a change that's long overdue, but it will not erase years of the LGBTQ community being told their blood is dangerous or that "they're not good enough," said Kirk Furlotte, Atlantic regional manager for Community-Based Research Centre, a non-profit that promotes the health of gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit and queer (GBT2Q) men.

In a 2018 CBRC survey of 3,500 gay, bi, queer, trans and two-spirit men, more than 90 per cent said they would donate blood if eligible.

Kirk Furlotte is the Atlantic regional manager for Community-Based Research Centre. (Kirk Furlotte)

"I think the community is looking forward to it, even though it will be a bumpy road for the first, let's say, few years," said Furlotte.

"[The wait time] may have made sense at one point in history, but the policies haven't kept up with the science. It encourages stigma and discrimination towards women, men and also trans people."

Tainted blood scandal

The policy is a holdover from a national public health disaster — the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s.

A lifetime donation ban targeting men who had sex with men — even once — was introduced after thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV or hepatitis C from donated blood.

The Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada, or Krever Inquiry, which began in 1993, did not blame people with HIV for infecting Canadians. It blamed the Canadian Red Cross, which managed the country's blood supply at the time, and the federal and provincial governments, as well as the Red Cross having a lack of clear policies when it came to blood collection.

The ban was lifted more than a decade later and replaced with a policy that permitted donations from men who said they had abstained from sex with other men for five years. The wait time was lowered to one year in 2016, and further reduced to three months in 2019.

Canadian Blood Services is now working on a proposal to remove the wait time in hopes of submitting it to Health Canada this fall, said spokesperson Catherine Lewis.

"Then, Health Canada will review it, and we hope it will be approved," Lewis said in an email.

'Current policy undermines the blood supply'

Furlotte said the fact the policy still exists reflects and perpetuates inaccurate views of living with HIV.

"The current policy undermines the blood supply at a time when we need it more than ever," he said. "It doesn't adequately address transmission and all potential variation."

OmniSoore Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian studies in Dalhousie University's faculty of medicine and an associate professor in community health and epidemiology, said she is a longtime advocate when it comes to changing Canadian Blood Services policies.

Canadian Blood Services and its partners support 19 independent research projects investigating aspects of blood and plasma donor eligibility criteria and screening process. They include Dryden's most recent project called #GotBlood2Give.

Dryden's research aims to examine barriers African, Caribbean and Black males over age 17 (18 in Montreal) who have sex with males face when it comes to blood donation.

Dryden says in addition to adding to the stigma gay men face when it comes to HIV, Canadian Blood Services has also been hurtful toward the Black community. Dryden references policies that barred people from Haiti as well as people from certain parts of Africa from giving blood.

Dr. Graham Sher is the CEO of Canadian Blood Services. (Canadian Blood Services)

In a video posted to the Canadian Blood Services website, CEO Dr. Graham Sher said the organization "must acknowledge and learn that inequity and systemic racism exists within their own organization, just as they exist in many parts of Canada." He says the organization is committed to change.

But there has been no formal apology to Black or queer communities.

"I think leadership needs to also engage appropriate accountability and that can begin with apologies to black and queer communities, and then engage in restorative justice," said Dryden.