In December Health Canada sneakily changed its regulations to ban gay men from donating lifesaving tissues and organs for transplant.
The move is outrageous but not so surprising. It’s been clear for a year that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been quietly changing whatever regulations it can in accordance with its socially conservative philosophy. This move is only the latest example of the Conservative push to criminalize HIV and gay sex.
“These regulations are based on risk for safety purposes and not lifestyle choices,” wrote Health Canada spokesperson Carole Saindon in an email to Xtra reporter Krishna Rau. “A gay man who had practised abstinence for the five years prior would be acceptable. Likewise a heterosexual man who had had a single sexual encounter with a male within the last five years would not be considered acceptable even though he is not gay.”
I don’t even know where to start with that passage. I’m gobsmacked. It seems to me that statement could stand on its own as an indictment of Conservative homophobia.
The fact is that patients awaiting transplant can still get what they need from gay donors. Patients and their doctors just need to get exempted from the ban on a case-by-case basis. The effect of this new regulation is simply that the Conservatives now require transplant physicians and patients to declare whether or not they mind that the tissues they need so desperately are donated by gay men.
Imagine if the Conservatives had instructed doctors to ask white patients if they are willing to accept tissues from black donors. It’s not an inappropriate analogy.
Let’s examine the real risk of HIV transmission through tissue donation.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada the number of men reported to be living with HIV in Canada who got it from man-to-man sex is estimated at 29,600 (2005). Canada’s population is around 33 million. So, without any safeguards or testing at all, the chance that any random donor is an HIV-positive gay man is less than one 10th of one percent.
A rapid HIV test kit can detect HIV antibodies in a single drop of a donor’s blood. Because it takes time for those antibodies to appear in the bloodstream after infection, a person who is newly HIV-positive may test negative for antibodies for as long as three months after infection.
Another more sophisticated test called NAT can detect the presence of HIV — the virus itself not just the antibodies — in the blood within days of exposure. It takes longer to get the results but in most cases the test could be completed on a donor before his tissues are transplanted.
So, with safeguards in place, this is what needs to happen for tissue to be transplanted from an HIV-positive gay man: The donor’s HIV-positive status must be unreported and not on his medical record. He needs to have been infected with HIV less than three months prior to becoming a donor. His tissues need to remain viable or alive for less time than it takes to get NAT results.
The chances that all those factors will conspire to make any individual HIV-positive is virtually zero. I can find no cases in which HIV was transmitted by transplant in Canada. There was one US case in 2007, the first in 20 years. A 38-year-old man who initially tested negative — he was not tested with NAT — passed hepatitis C and HIV to four recipients. Doctors think he became infected with both viruses less than three weeks before he sustained the injury that ended his life. And HIV isn’t a death sentence, even for transplant recipients. Those patients could live with HIV for decades more.
The Conservative ban is a transparent expression of homophobia by the government of Canada. We’ve got to vote these people out of power the first chance we get.