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Canadian Blood Services lifts ban on gay bone marrow donors

Change affects relatively few, activists say; no movement on blood donation

Credit: Mia Hansen illustration

The Canadian Blood Services is now accepting gay men as donors of stem cells and bone marrow. Until October, gay men were automatically ineligible if they’d ever been sexually active.

Bone marrow and stem-cell transplants from non-relatives are uncommon; in 2008, just 250 such operations were performed in Canada. That’s because, for the procedure to work, donors and recipients must be near-perfect genetic matches.

CBS collects information about potential donors through a program called One Match (formerly the Unrelated Bone Marrow Donor Registry). In Canada, there are 250,000 people registered with One Match, but there are still over 800 people awaiting transplants.

In 2008, Health Canada released new regulations with respect to cell, tissue and organ donation. Those rules triggered a review of the prohibition of gay men’s bone marrow and stem cells, says Jennifer Philippe, director of One Match.

“Prior to that, we defaulted to the blood regs,” says Philippe.

“Before we made the change, we did a lot of consultation, both internally and, as well, we went to many of our advisory groups,” she says. “We went to the transplant community and we also went to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirited and queer advisory group.”

Canadian Blood Services is best known for its blood drives, where a lifetime prohibition on gay donors persists.

A generation of young activists, concentrated on university campuses, is agitating for a change in policy. The Canadian Federation of Students has officially opposed the prohibition on gay blood donors since 1998, says Brent Farrington, a campaigner with CFS.

The change in the stem-cell registry is positive, says Farrington, but it doesn’t mean that the rules prohibiting gay male blood donors are on their way out the door.

“It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “Sure, it’s a positive step in that it recognizes that there isn’t an inherit risk [posed by gay men.]”

Farrington points out that the procedure surrounding bone marrow is more akin to organ donation than blood donation. He also says it’s a relatively minor change, given the number of transplants.

“It’s the smallest of the patient groups that CBS deals with,” he says.

Mike Wiseman spent several years advocating for a change in policy as a student at Carleton University in Ottawa. He works for the Carleton University Student Association.

“We are cautiously optimistic that this will eventually lead to a change in the Canadian Blood Services’ policy on blood donations for men who have sex with men,” says Wiseman. “As students, we welcome this change in policy for stem cells and are eager to continue the dialogue on the blood donation issue with CBS.”

Joshua Ferguson, who founded a group called Standing Against Queer Discrimination as an undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario, says that the blood ban is a tool used by regulators to “appease the public’s perception about the safety of the blood supply.”

“CBS’s new guidelines on stem-cell donation clearly indicate that science no longer supports these bans and that the science and ideology propping up the gay blood ban is beginning to show signs of fragmentation,” Ferguson says.

Canadian Blood Services is increasingly offloading the blame for the gay blood ban on Health Canada, because the agency relies on Health Canada’s regulations in setting policy. But that no longer holds water, given the developments in stem-cell donation, says Ferguson, now a graduate student at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s also problematic that Health Canada revised its guidelines for donation in 2008 yet it took CBS until October to make the policy change. Why is there a lag in CBS’ response time in affecting policy change? Does this indicate that CBS actually has some regulatory powers and, if so, how can they continue to ignore the lack of scientific justification for the ban on gay blood and blood products?”

Until CBS and Health Canada budge, students will not be sitting on their hands.

CFS, which represents students at approximately 80 Canadian universities, will launch a new campaign advocating for the end of the blood donation ban in 2010.