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Canada’s gay blood ban

The struggle to end discrimination against gay men donating blood is far from over

In one of its radio ads, the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) asks, “Wouldn’t you hope someone was donating for you?”
 
In another, a voice states, “Blood, it’s in you to give.”
 
The “you” in the CBS ads still excludes gay men (at least those who have had sex with another man anytime since 1977).
        
Despite the recent lifting of a ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) donating blood in Britain, CBS and its counterpart, Héma-Québec, have committed only to a review of the current ban in Canada.
 
Most such bans were put in place in the early 1980s in response to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
 
Chad Smith, executive director of Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre, says the current policy is discriminatory and needs to be struck down.
 
“There are still a lot of trust issues with gay men in our society,” he says. “There are still a lot of stereotypes that gay men have HIV or spread HIV. The policy doesn’t target behaviour; it targets gay men.”
 
Smith says CBS offers no exceptions for gay men who are in healthy monogamous relationships for long periods of time, yet heterosexuals are not asked to divulge information about their sex lives. He says CBS targets sexual orientation and not sexual behaviour.
 
“Our own study of our donor base demonstrated that gender-neutral, behaviour-based screening resulted in an excessive loss of donors and would threaten supply. Therefore this method of screening cannot maintain the current levels of safety and adequacy of supply,” states Ron Vezina, director of communications of CBS, in an email to Xtra on Nov 28.
 
While Canadian statistics show that MSM still run the highest risk of contracting HIV, the technology used to screen and test blood is far more advanced today than it was when the original policy was adopted. 
 
Meanwhile, Public Health Agency of Canada research has found that HIV infection rates are on the rise in other groups, including aboriginals and immigrant groups from Africa and the Caribbean.
 
Fifteen percent of positive HIV test reports in Manitoba in 2007 and 20 percent of positive reports in Alberta were from people who identified as African-Canadian. In Ontario, 11 percent of all positive HIV test reports between 1985 and 2005 also fell into this category.
 
In response to scientific advancements, several countries, including Australia and Japan, have implemented deferral periods on donations from MSM.
 
CBS is currently considering a deferral period in Canada, although the final decision rests with Health Canada.
 
Vezina says CBS is looking at a deferral period of between five and 10 years. Vezina also noted that Canada’s history of tainted blood makes it more difficult to lift the ban.
        
Gay Manitoba business owner Jason Sarna, 41, recently ended a 13-year monogamous relationship. Sarna says he’s angry that because he’s gay he’s unable to donate what’s in him to give.
 
“The ban makes me feel dirty, like I am unworthy of donating my blood because I have, or will get, AIDS – when that isn’t the case,” says Sarna. “It’s frustrating because I pride myself on being healthy. I am one of the healthiest people I know, yet I am unable to donate my blood to people who need it. It just isn’t fair.”
 
The CBS ban on gay blood also has ripple effects beyond the gay community.
 
Jena Colpitts, a 22-year-old student at the University of Manitoba, is a heterosexual female who considered not donating blood because she, too, is angry that her gay friends are forbidden from donating.
 
“The policy reinforces the preconceived notion that men who have sex with men consistently engage in high-risk behaviour, regardless of their actual behaviour,” she says.
        
Despite how well MSM protect themselves, or whether they are in healthy monogamous relationships, Vezina feels the policy is necessary to mitigate the risk of tainted blood.
 
“A man who has had sex with another man is still participating in a high-risk activity,” he says.
        
Smith thinks the idea of a five-year deferral period is window dressing.
 
“Putting that in place just makes it look like they are negotiating with us, but realistically it won’t change anything,” he says. “Any time-based ban is discriminatory. But if having some sort of a deferral period for men to donate blood is going to happen, it has to be a realistic period.”
 
Smith says a one-month deferral period would be more practical.
 
“It is something you can work into your lifestyle if you are in a relationship and sexually active.”