One-year ban on blood donations from gay men should disappear completely: expert

Daily Brew

[Canada will allow blood donations from men who have abstained from sex with other men for a period of one year. That would shorten the required abstinence period from five years. MASHABLE]

Health Canada says gay men who have been abstinent for one year can donate blood but one expert says there’s no reason for the waiting period.

The new policy, which was previously an abstinence period of five years, will kick in Aug. 15, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Monday.

“I think the current limitation of five years is completely unrealistic and basically says to a gay man, ‘You need not ever give blood,’” Dr. Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and former president of the International AIDS Society, tells Yahoo Canada News. “A better improvement, actually, would be to say to a gay man, we’ll accept your blood.”

This position is supported by medical research that indicates modern-day testing methods can catch contaminants in the blood supply. Other countries have shortened or removed their ban without any measurable effect on the risk levels of their blood supply, according to several studies. 

“The testing is so sensitive now,” Dr. Wainberg says. “It’s so ultra-sensitive that the blood supply is being tested by the most modern approaches imaginable. We haven’t moved with the technology.”

The ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men came at a time when testing technology was less sophisticated, Dr. Wainberg says, and when gay and bisexual men did make up the majority of people with HIV and AIDS. With better testing technology, less stigma around the disease, and more understanding of HIV/AIDS we can have guidelines that focus on excluding donors with behaviours like multiple sexual partners or injection drug use instead of disallowing donations from large groups of people, Dr. Wainberg says.

“Gay men have been singled out. There’s no question,” he says.

Other countries have allowed men who have sex with men to give blood without harming the blood supply. In the United States the ban was lifted from lifetime to 12 months by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015. Other nations including Japan, Sweden and the United Kingdom have put shorter deferment periods in place. 

A 2010 study found that the reduction of Australia’s limit on blood donations from gay and bisexual men didn’t cause any increase in risk to the blood supply, but did increase total overall blood donations. And in Italy, where a move to a system of individual risk assessment to determine blood donor status was adopted in 2001, the blood supply remains safe.

According to Monday’s announcement, Canada will allow blood donations from men who have abstained from sex with other men for a period of one year. That would shorten the required abstinence period from five years, which was brought in in 2013 to replace a total ban on donations from gay and bisexual men.

The government will also fund research on further reducing or dropping the deferral period, Philpott said Monday.

The Liberals campaigned last fall on a promise to remove the ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men. The move to shorten the deferral period would coincidentally come shortly after such bans were in the news following the shooting in Orlando, Fla. Gay and bisexual men in that community were unable to donate badly needed blood for members of the LGBTQ community who survived the shooting because of a ban in place in Florida.

Some people criticized the federal government for not fully removing the ban as promised.

“Homophobic blood ban is basically a form of the ‘gay panic’ defence. A relic of the AIDS scare which does not reflect our current knowledge,” tweeted Corey Shefman.

“You know how it feels when the state tells you your very body is actually de facto toxic? NOT GOOD,” tweeted Mikey says.

“Remember the blood ban on ‘men who have sex with men’ also affects trans women and cis women who have slept with those who fall under ‘MSM’,” tweeted Lauren Strapagiel. 

The timelines for any existing deferral period in place in Canada or elsewhere is more likely to come from outside pressure than a particular scientific consensus, Dr. Wainberg says.

“I think the blood agencies are still under a lot of pressure by certain groups to maintain a standard that is longer than might otherwise be the case,” he says.

But while a deferral period isn’t needed at all, reports of a significant reduction in it are a step in the right direction, Dr. Wainberg says.