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Blood policy needs overhaul

Monitor behaviour, not orientation

The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) policy excluding gay men from donating blood is discriminatory and needs to be changed, insisted several advocacy groups at a recent roundtable.

“It effectively slaps the face of the gay man… on AIDS and Hep C and everything else that has ever gone wrong with the blood system,” says Egale Canada’s director of advocacy Tamara Kronis.

At a CBS-hosted consultation in Toronto on Apr 16, organizations including Egale Canada, the Canadian AIDS Society and the Canadian Federation Of Students met to express their views on the policy and CBS’s controversial donor-screening questionnaire.

The quesionnaire asks: “Have you had sex with a man, even one time since 1977?” A “yes” disqualifies the person from donating blood.

Kronis says CBS’s policy is discriminatory because it excludes potential donors based on sexual orientation as opposed to unsafe sexual practices.

“In terms of language it’s an exclusion, not a deferral,” says Kronis. “Calling it their ‘MSM [men who have sex with men] deferral policy’ implies that at some point in the future, MSM will be able to give blood. But right now gay men can’t, so it’s actually exclusion. So the CBS should be honest and call it that.”

She says the questionnaire prevents otherwise healthy queer men from donating blood, and sends a negative message to those who donate blood to the CBS.

Why, when CBS is trying to increase its donor supply, would it choose to exclude a whole segment of the population from donating, wonders Brent Farrington, national deputy chairperson with the Canadian Federation Of Students. He says current blood testing procedures render CBS’s policy unnecessary.

“They are continuing to enforce a Draconian policy when they could easily modernize their organization and move away from discriminatory questions,” says Farrington. “Our goal is to help Canadian Blood Services realize that the policy is discriminatory and it should be changed to behaviour risk, as opposed to demographic risk.”

Stephen Alexander, programs consultant with the Canadian Aids Society, says that CBS is being cautious and looking for “a no-risk outcome,” which makes advocacting for change more difficult.

“We gave them our comments and asked that they consider activity-based criteria as opposed to population-based criteria.”

He says several countries including Argentina, Australia, Japan, South Africa, New Zealand and Hungary have deferral policies of varying lengths in place, which may allow queer men who have engaged in risky sex to donate blood again after a certain time period.

“Italy has changed to a deferral criteria based on activities,” says Alexander, “and so we sort of urged Canadian Blood Services to have a look at the countries that have changed their deferral policies, and see if there were some successful practices and models that they could take from those countries who use activity-based deferral policies.

Alexander says the Canadian AIDS Society is pleased that CBS is reexamining its policy.

“It was a really interesting consultation,” agrees Kronis. “They were very receptive and I do feel that we were listened to and they wanted us to share our views.

“That having been said, I didn’t walk away from the meeting optimistic that there would be any policy changes anytime soon.”

PJ Vankoughnett-Olson, the manager of public involvement for CBS, says CBS is interested in what concerned groups have to say about the policy.

“The reason why we brought the groups together was so that we could review the policy,” says Vankoughnett-Olson. “All the participants told us they felt free to express their views, and we felt that we were able to have a great dialogue with them.”

Viewpoints presented during this and another consultation in Ottawa will be presented to the CBS’s board of directors for consideration. If the board deems changes to the current policy are necessary, it will come up with recommendations to present to Health Canada, which makes the final decision.