3 min

Blood rules discriminate

Science behind blood exclusions is bad, say students

YOUTH ACTIVISM: Caspar Miles and Aman Dhaliwal say new technological advances can protect donated blood without discriminating against gay donors. They've set up a national petition at Credit: Xtra files

It was his experience as an advisor at Gage Residence at the University of British Columbia that led science major Aman Dhaliwal to question the logic of Canadian Blood Services.

Dhaliwal heard complaints from gay students who were turned away when they tried to donate blood to the national agency when it came to the residence.

Then he talked to his friend, Caspar Miles, a software developer. Miles had recently run into the same roadblock.

“I went to a corporate blood drive where I was the only person in my company not able to donate blood just because I’ve had sex with a man since 1977,” he recalls.

Dhaliwal found others with similar experiences. Two more residence advisors-Ashley Dunn and Colin Taillefer-joined Dhaliwal and Miles to form Let Everyone Donate (LED). They’ve created an online petition,, that they hope will build national support to reform the rules for donating blood. It went live Apr 1.

At issue is the longstanding policy of Canadian Blood Services to refuse blood from potential donors who have had sex with men in the last three decades.

“Have you had sex with a man, even once, since 1977?” reads the question presented to all potential blood donors. If you’re male, and answer “yes,” then you’re disqualified.

The question is in a section of a document that asks about risky activities like sex and intravenous drug use. A “yes” answer to any of these questions means that you’re not eligible to donate blood.

Unfair, charge the four gay petition organizers. The question about gay sex was designed at the peak of the AIDS epidemic; it’s time to reword the question or completely change it, says Dhaliwal. “It doesn’t differentiate between oral sex, anal sex, protected sex and unprotected sex,” says Dhaliwal.

And Miles adds that a whole generation of gay men have been born and come of age since 1977 and are “automatically discriminated against.”

The science does not support the exclusion, they say.

After all, it is unprotected sex that carries risk, not whole groups of people, such as men who have had sex with men in the last 30 years. And new tests have come along that are far more accurate at early detection of HIV than were tests used when the exclusion of gay men was developed. Early tests could not detect antibodies to the virus during a “window period” that lasted six months from initial exposure to HIV.

“We did research into the window periods of the diseases that the blood agency is concerned about-HIV, Hep-C and syphilis. None had a window over six months,” says Dhaliwal.

LED founders want the question changed to something less discriminatory and in line with the ability of new advances to detect viruses. A question about having unprotected sex within the last six months would make sense, they suggest.

Leslie Bauer of Blood Services Canada is reluctant to change the guidelines. He says they’re simply doing their best to safeguard the blood supply. “Research tells us that men who have sex with men are at a much higher risk of HIV,” he says. Bauer also points to the three month “window period” when HIV cannot be detected in a blood test.

However there are new advancements in technology that can make this window period much shorter, say LED members. These new ways of testing for HIV cost more than the current methods, but they can detect the virus much earlier.

“Realistically, if someone’s blood has been tainted, there are ways to detect it within 30 days,” says Miles. “And these methods of testing are becoming more and more cost effective.”

One new method is PCR testing, which tests for the virus itself, rather than the HIV antibodies that earlier tests detected. The PCR test is often used on health care professionals and on newborn babies who are at risk of infection. It costs approximately $30 per test whereas antibody tests cost around $7 now.

But Miles says the costs are coming down and the donation rules should not discriminate.

It’s not the first time that gays have tried to reform the Blood Services’ policy.

Rallies and petitions against the blood policy have been held all over Canada-most often organized by gay activists at universities-but this is the first nationwide effort to petition against Canadian Blood Services’ discrimination against gay men. And LED founders hope to get enough publicity that this example of high-tech activism inspires sufficient signatures to change the blood bank’s policy. They’re hoping rural citizens and straights will join with gays and lesbians in signing the petition.

“What we’re essentially trying to do is raise awareness,” says Dhaliwal, who also volunteers with AIDS Vancouver teaches first aid to street youth and sex-trade workers on Vancouver’s East Side.

And if the petition doesn’t lead directly to change? Miles says that’s okay, too. The group will have succeeded just by raising awareness of discrimination.

“Times are changing and this is just one of many situations where people are still being discriminated against,” he says.