The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Canadian Blood Services with the approval of Health Canada recently reduced the waiting period to give blood for men who have sex with other men from five years to one, but some believe it still isn’t enough.

The “blood ban,” a term used to describe the period in which sexually active gay men cannot donate blood, currently sits at one year. During the 2015 election, the Liberals promised to end the gay blood donation ban. Nonetheless, this means if you are currently a man who has had sex with another man — even a monogamous partner — within a one-year period, your blood donation will be denied.

Kevin Allen, the research lead of Calgary Gay History Project, remembers a time when the blood ban had no time limit. Where if you were a man who had sex with men, you couldn’t donate. Ever.

“They told me I could still give my blood, but they would throw it out,” says Allen.

The reasoning behind Canadian Blood Services’ rule is based on the understanding sexually active gay men are at the highest risk of contracting HIV. According to the Canadian Aids Society, gay men account for 56 per cent of all cases of HIV/AIDS cases in Canada and 45 per cent of all new infections.

Yet, it’s also true HIV/AIDS isn’t solely prevalent in gay men as once thought. Heterosexual men and women can contract the disease as well, but the only screening question for women pertains to whether they’ve had sex with a man who’s had sex with another man. The struggle, according to Dr. Ameeta Singh, an infectious disease specialist based out of the University of Alberta, is developing a screening process that doesn’t discriminate. 

“They told me I could still give my blood, but they would throw it out.” - Kevin Allen

“I think in the long run, ideally, we would like to come up with a way to ask these questions about risk without asking about orientation, but I get the sense that we’re not really there yet,” says Singh.

BloodbanheartThe reduction of the men who have sex with men deferral period from five years to one year is a step in the right direction according to Canadian Blood Services. Many still feel like the deferral period is a ban, and say they are marginalized by the rule. Produced by Nora Cruickshank

Singh adds, “There are a couple of countries that are currently using this approach, Spain and Italy, but they have very different HIV epidemiology. Their HIV cases are mainly among heterosexual persons.”

HIV epidemiology is the difference of who is affected by HIV in different areas of the world — for example heterosexual’s in Italy are more affected than homosexuals here in Canada.

The blood ban was eventually reduced in 2013 to five years and last August the ban was reduced again, this time to one year. According to Brook Biggins of Edmonton Men’s Health Collective, it’s still not enough.

“Even this one year deferral doesn’t appear to be working for anybody because it’s not working for the community. I mean, how many people out there haven’t had sex in the last year? You can call it a deferral period, but for many, it’s still a ban,” he says. “How many people are going to spend a whole year not having sex just so that they can donate blood?”

“Even this one-year deferral doesn’t appear to be working for anybody because it’s not working for the community. I mean, how many people out there haven’t had sex in the last year? You can call it a deferral period, but for many, it’s still a ban.” - Brook Biggins

The ban means Canadian Blood Services does not get donations from otherwise eligible people, simply because they happen to have sex with men. Allen says the ban is simply discriminatory.

“It discriminates [against] people who are in long-term, monogamous relationships — like myself. My husband and I are both HIV negative, we’ve been together for 18 years and we could have been giving blood all this time.”

While Canadian Blood Services declined to comment due to the high volume of interview requests they get on the topic, they did refer to web pages about what the next steps may be.

In the wake of the ban development, Canadian Blood Services is taking applications for funding to research men who have sex with men (MSM) ban. The purpose of the MSM research grant, according to Canadian Blood Services’ website, “is to ensure the generation of adequate evidence-based research for alternative screening approaches for blood or plasma donors, which could evolve the current deferral policy for men who have sex with men while maintaining the safety of the blood supply.”

Biggins, along with Singh and the rest of Edmonton Men’s Health Collective and other doctor and research specialists, are seeking to apply for this funding. Biggins believes community-based research is the right way to approach the issue. By creating a behavioural-based screening process and consulting the LGBTQ community about the process, they seek to create a process that doesn’t stigmatize any individual.

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“What we believe is that there are more effective ways to measure risk than simply determining whether a guy has had sex with another guy in the last year,” says Biggins. “It really is a case of balancing protecting the blood supply but ensuring that you’re not marginalizing an entire population unnecessarily.”

A lack of Canadian research on behavioural screening and blood donation contributes to the reasoning behind the blood ban. By providing funding for that research, Biggins believes that Canada can be a leader in the field.

“I think this is an opportunity for Canada to show leadership in the area of LGBTQ rights. We talk a lot about how much we value LGBTQ rights, we have an LGBTQ advisor to the Prime Minister, but at the end of the day, you have all the words, but it requires some action to back it up.”

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The editor responsible for this article is Nora Cruickshank, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.