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Canadian gay blood ban eased from five years to 12 months

Federal government stands by pledge to axe ban entirely

Canadian Blood Services formally asked Health Canada in late March 2016 to decrease the abstinence period for men who have sex with men (MSM) from five years to 12 months. Credit: Canadian Blood Services/Flickr

Come this fall, gay, bisexual men and men who have sex with men will no longer need to be abstinent for five years before donating blood — they’ll only have to be abstinent for 12 months.

Health Canada has approved upcoming changes to rules on blood donations for men who have sex with men (MSM) on June 20, 2016. And while the deferral period is a significant change, the federal Liberal government says it still stands by its promise to drop the ban entirely.

“The evidence that we have seen allows us to move in this direction with the utmost confidence that the safety of Canada’s blood system will be maintained,” Health Minister Jane Philpott wrote in a June 20 statement.

In April, Daily Xtra reported that Health Canada was reviewing an application by Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec to lower the abstinence period for MSM to 12 months. CBS estimates the new policy could be in force by this autumn.

The one-year policy is in line with countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and France. Spain, Italy and some South American countries have dropped these limitations entirely.

The federal government has also pledged $3 million to both blood agencies “to fund behavioural research to ensure non-discriminatory practices; organize an international seminar with health leaders from around the world to discuss blood donor policy” and to fund studies on technologies that might make more people eligible for blood donation.

In addition, Philpott threw her support behind a Conservative proposal to have Parliament study whether the ban could be curtailed or ended.

In a June 14 Facebook post, Calgary Confederation MP Len Webber said he would soon ask the House of Commons’ health committee to “revisit this policy to ensure it is based in science and not in fear.” Webber said he was motivated by a recent report about a Vancouver gay man who needed a special exemption to donate his kidney to a friend and still couldn’t give blood.

The health committee was set to vote on Webber’s motion on June 15, but it ran out of time and will instead come to a vote at the next meeting, likely in September.

“If it’s safe to donate, let’s take away the fear-mongering and the inaccuracies. It’s all about scientific evidence,” Webber told Daily Xtra. As a provincial MLA, Webber previously had Alberta start a formal, online organ donation registry.

“I want a safe blood system; that’s my priority. But I am adamant about expanding the number of people who can donate.”

Since 2014, the Liberal party website has hosted a petition to “end the gay blood donation ban” before pledging to do so in the 2015 election. In her June 20 statement, Philpott echoed comments she made to Daily Xtra in April, that her government wants to do more than just curtail the ban on MSM.

“I recognize that this [four-year] reduction in the deferral period is not a radical change, and will not change the circumstances for many MSM donors who are currently prevented from donating blood. That being said, I would rather see Canada take a step in the right direction than stand still,” the statement reads.

“I am confident that any remaining barriers to MSM blood donation will be removed — it is only a question of when.”