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Blood agency studies ban on gay donors

Will CBS switch to behaviour-based guidelines?

Credit: (Brent Creelman photo)

Canadian Blood Services is researching new blood donor guidelines, but it’s too early to say if the agency will actually repeal its lifetime ban on gay men.

“What we want to do is get a really firm handle on where we are now, what can be supported by science and move forward when and where we can,” says Anne Trueman, a media spokesperson for the blood agency.

The agency has commissioned academic studies to look at the risks associated with new policies, and emerging risks in specific groups, not just gay men.

Preliminary results are expected in early 2009, says Trueman.

The blood agency’s policy states that men who have had sex with men — even once — since 1977 are banned from donating blood.

A number of countries have repealed the lifetime ban, including Australia, which allows men who have not had sex with men for a year to donate. In South Africa, the period is six months.

But regardless of the time length of the ban, these policies still single out gay men because of their sexual orientation.

At a meeting last year, Egale told the blood agency “loud and clear” that it should change its policy to target behaviour rather than orientation, says Trueman. As the policy stands, even men who use condoms or have only one sexual partner are banned for life.

Spain, Italy and Portugal have all changed their policies to exclude donors who have engaged in risky sexual behaviour, rather than rejecting them because of their sexual orientation.

“Blood systems around the world are always in contact with each other,” says Trueman. “We’ll certainly know if these changes in policy have worked.”

This latest round of research follows a report commissioned by the blood agency last year.

The McLaughlin Centre for Population Health in Ottawa found that the risk of adopting a five-year exclusion period of gay men “could very well be so small as to have, in a statistical sense, no measurable impact on the current level of risk.”

The report did not examine behaviour-based guidelines, only the risk of reducing the length of the ban on gay donors.

— with files from Krishna Rau