Experts divided about safety of accepting blood from gay men

It is time to drop a discriminatory policy that bars gay men from donating blood in Canada, several leading HIV-AIDS researchers said in an article published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

TORONTO — It is time to drop a discriminatory policy that bars gay men from donating blood in Canada, several leading HIV-AIDS researchers said in an article published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

But the organization that maintains the country’s blood supply and a group representing hemophiliacs were quick to insist science hasn’t yet evolved to the point where it’s safe to take that step.

At the heart of the controversy is a policy that bars any man who has had sex with even one other man since 1977 from giving blood. That date was selected as it is believed to be before HIV began to circulate within the gay community, the demographic hardest hit by AIDS in the developed world.

In the words of Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec, which maintain the country’s two blood services, it is an “indefinite deferral.” In the eyes of the gay and lesbian community, it is a ban — and discrimination.

“We’re not asking for all gay men to be able to give blood. If someone’s a gay man and promiscuous, we say ‘Exclude them.’ We’re trying to be balanced and moderate here,” said lead author Dr. Mark Wainberg, head of AIDS research at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital and the McGill University AIDS Centre.

“The current policy is one that discriminates against all gay men in a permanent way and that seems a bit … not only unfair, but it seems to be counter to the best interests of the blood agencies that chronically encounter shortages.”

Wainberg and his co-authors suggested the policy, which dates back to a time when there was no effective way to screen donated blood for the HIV virus, should be modified to permit gay men in long-term, monogamous relationships to donate blood.

They suggested gay men should be asked to defer donating blood for a period of time after having sex with a new partner — perhaps a year, perhaps even as long as five years. They noted that women who have sex with bisexual men are asked to refrain from giving blood for a year.

Wainberg and his colleagues calculated the increased risk as small or virtually non-existent, depending on the length of the deferral.

But their argument met with immediate objection from the Canadian Hemophilia Society, a group whose members paid a heavy price for the earlier inability and then unwillingness to screen all blood donations for HIV and hepatitis C.

About 1,200 Canadians were infected with HIV in the 1970s and early 1980s, more than half of them hemophiliacs.

“You have to remember, who bears the risk here? The risk is borne 100 per cent by the recipient,” said David Page, national executive director of the Canadian Hemophilia Society.

“It’s not borne by the donor, whether the donor decides to give blood or doesn’t decide to give blood or feels hard done by because it’s discriminatory — which it is. There’s no doubt about that. The question is, does it go beyond what is necessary in terms of discrimination?”

The debate comes as the gay and lesbian community and Canadian Blood Services await the verdict in a trial that could have ramifications on the issue.

Kyle Freeman, a gay man from Thornhill, Ont., was sued last fall after he revealed he’d given blood despite the ban. Freeman countersued Canadian Blood Services, alleging their screening question violated his Charter rights.

The case was heard in Ontario Superior Court and a ruling is expected to be handed down in the near future.

Douglas Elliott, a lawyer who frequently represents the Canadian AIDS Society, dismissed as a “fallacy” the notion that the screening questionnaire used by Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec keeps the blood supply free of HIV.

(It is in fact one step in a multi-step process designed to minimize the risk that Canadians will contract blood-borne pathogens through blood transfusions.)

“There is no test for gay blood. So this question is only as effective as the kind of co-operation that the Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec get from the gay community. Historically they’ve had very good co-operation from us and that is what has protected the blood supply,” Elliott said.

But he said perpetuating a ban that the gay and lesbian community believe is discrimination rooted in homophobia is eroding that co-operation.

“My mother taught me a long time ago: Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer,” Elliot said.

“The longer you ask a question that people find patently ridiculous, the more likely you are going to have people like Mr. Freeman who are going to simply ignore the question and do a self-assessment. That’s not something that we encourage by any stretch, but that is a reality.”

Elliott noted the American Red Cross looked at the issue and found that is already taking place. A study they conducted showed they had numerous gay blood donors who were ignoring the screening question “because they thought it was idiotic.”

Ron Vezina, communications manager for Canadian Blood Services, said the agency regularly re-examines the issue of the ban to determine whether it is still justified by scientific evidence.

“We’re open to changing the policy as long as the science and the evidence back it,” Vezina said from Ottawa.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ice shifted to the shoreline at Sylvan Lake on April 21. (Photo contributed by Andrea Swainson)
Icy shores of Sylvan Lake

A local photographer has captured how the ice has shifted to the… Continue reading

A Loblaws store is seen Monday, March 9, 2015 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
In absence of mandated paid sick days, some companies are stepping up

Only 42 per cent of working Canadians say they have access to paid sick leave

President Joe Biden waves after holding a virtual meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the East Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Evan Vucci
New emission-cutting goals called ‘aggressive,’ ‘ambitious’ and ‘illogical’

Canadian industry is being compelled to cut methane emissions by 45 per cent by 2025

Curtis Labelle (second from left) and his band are planning a cross-Canada tour in 2022. Meanwhile, Labelle is continuing to host his weekly livestreamed talk show, Chattin 88. (Contributed photo).
Red Deer rock pianist takes on a talk show role

Curtis Labelle’s Chattin 88 gets views from around the globe

Brooke Henderson, of Canada, watches her tee shot on the 17th hole during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Canadian Brooke Henderson vaults into tie for fourth at LPGA Tour event

Henderson is sixth in the world women’s golf rankings

Switzerland’s skip Silvana Tirinzoni makes a call during a women’s curling match against Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Natacha Pisarenko
Previously unbeaten women’s teams suffer setbacks at Grand Slam curling event

Top six women’s and men’s teams qualify for the playoffs.

FILE - Gal Gadot arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in Beverly Hills, Calif. Gadot is using her Hollywood star power to spotlight remarkable women from around the world. The “Wonder Woman” actor is host and executive producer of a new documentary series “National Geographic Presents IMPACT with Gal Gadot,” premiering Monday, April 26. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Gal Gadot spotlights women’s stories in new docuseries

First episode follows a young Black figure skating coach in Detroit

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Marco Mendicino listens to speakers during a news conference in Ottawa, Friday October 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Retaking language test unfair during COVID-19: applicants to new residency pathway

New program aims to grant 90,000 essential workers and international graduates permanent status

LtE bug
Letter: Questions around city funding for Westerner

The Advocate article on April 21 on page 3 “Council to discuss… Continue reading

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Foligno (71) and Mitchell Marner (16) celebrate Marner's goal on Winnipeg Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit (30) during second-period NHL action in Winnipeg on Thursday, April 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Leafs end five-game winless skid with 5-3 win over Jets in North Division battle

Leafs end five-game winless skid with 5-3 win over Jets in North Division battle

Taylor Pendrith from Richmond Hill, Ont. salutes the crowd after sinking a birdie on the 18th hole to come in at five under par during first round of play at the Canadian Open golf championship Thursday, July 24, 2014 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
PGA Tour Canada splits into Canadian, American circuits for 20201

PGA Tour Canada splits into Canadian, American circuits for 20201

Like father, like son: Floreal emerges as one of Canada’s top sprinters

Like father, like son: Floreal emerges as one of Canada’s top sprinters

Most Read