Promises, promises

A ban enacted in the late 1980s during the AIDS epidemic has LGBTQ* advocates wondering why after 30 years of scientific improvement in testing systems, men who have sex with men (MSM) are still restricted from donating blood.

In 2014, the Liberal party’s website hosted a petition to end the five-year deferral, which is a policy that requires MSM individuals to be celibate for five years before donating blood.

The promise to end the deferral based on its discriminatory nature toward MSM individuals was echoed in the party’s campaign platform during the 2015 federal election. During that time, the Liberals said they would work with Health Canada to reduce the wait time.

Photo © Moojan Haidari

Photo © Moojan Haidari

However, the promise that received more than 28,000 electronic signatures on the party’s website, was not included in the health minister’s mandate letter in November 2015.

“Political parties tend to develop platforms without looking deep into the complexity of the issues,” says Jonathan Niemczak, president of Pride Winnipeg. “It will take years for the policy to get to a point where MSM individuals can donate blood, and that’ll be a very slow process.”

The Canadian Red Cross introduced the lifetime ban in 1988 after a rise in the number of HIV cases contracted through tainted blood in the late 1970s. It was not until 2013 that Health Canada deemed there was sufficient research to reduce the blood ban policy to a five-year deferral period.

Although there are current tests that can detect most strains of HIV—that is if the donor hasn’t contracted the virus within 16 days of donation—some strains take longer to appear.

For that reason, the Canadian Blood Services now say there’s sufficient evidence to support reducing the five-year deferral to one year, but not enough to eliminate a lengthy waiting period.

“There should not be a policy that discriminates a group of people because of who they have sex with. There should be a policy that mitigates risk and takes into consideration current science.”— Michael Bach

While some LGBTQ* advocates are commending this change as progress, other advocates still consider it outdated, discriminatory and equivalent to a lifetime deferral.

Canadian Blood Services say it is working on gathering evidence to support behavioural-based screening, which allows for the identification of low-risk sexually active MSM individuals.

Niemczak says this process will help end the discriminatory two-tier system, but it will require a new screening system.

“That’s where the new research needs to come in.”


Source : Public Health Agency of Canada

Michael Bach, CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, says lifting the ban should be an easy process and a “quick win for the government.”

“This doesn’t require tens of millions of dollars and a committee,” he says. “It’s a matter of how quickly they will move on it.”

Bach says his organization has been in contact with both blood operators in Canada, Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Quebec, and is willing to organize a research group to conduct more studies to present data to Health Canada.

“If we prove through the research that the current model works better than anything else than I will accept that,” he says. “But if the barrier to this is the research then we need to step up and make this research happen.”

Although Canadian Blood Services says lifting the MSM blood donation policy is a priority for them, they say the “commitment has not been communicated as a government priority or policy.”

But Bach says deferrals of any kind are not an effective measure to mitigate risk and end the discrimination towards more than half a million Canadians.

“We know of many cases of MSM individuals who have donated blood and lied.”

With a better understanding of the science behind HIV transmission and more accurate testing systems that detect HIV in a few weeks, LGBTQ* advocates are putting even more pressure on the federal government.

“There should not be a policy that discriminates a group of people because of who they have sex with,” Bach says. “There should be a policy that mitigates risk and takes into consideration current science.”

Moojan is a fourth-year journalism and English language and literature student at Carleton University. Her work has appeared on 580 CFRA Newstalk, Carleton Journalists for Human Rights, Centretown News and The Charlatan. In her spare time she produces music, plays sports and reads books.

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