CFS campaigns to end MSM deferral policy on blood donations

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) is currently working to end the Canadian Blood Services’ lifetime ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with other men (MSM) at anytime since 1977.

The CFS feels it is a discriminatory policy that draws attention to a person’s sexual preference rather than sexual practice.

“A man who has sex with a man has just as much chance of contracting HIV as a man who has sex with a woman, so we can see that we need to be focusing on more sexual practices than sexual preference,” said Alanna Makinson, CFS-Manitoba chairperson.

The organization is currently running a campaign that focuses on raising public awareness of the issue, and has had students campaigning at various Pride parades and other events across the country.

Bonnie Monteith, a spokesperson for Canadian Blood Services, explained that the policy continues to be in place because the risk continues to be higher among the MSM category of donors.

“To date, there has been no new scientific evidence to support an end or modification of the current policy,” said Monteith.

Monteith pointed to recent statistics released by the Public Health Agency of Canada, which show that the prevalence and incidence of HIV is higher in males who have sex with males than other groups, noting that the MSM category accounts for 39. 6 per cent of HIV cases in Canada.

“It is not up to Canadian Blood Services to determine whether or not this is a fair policy,” said Monteith

“It is our mandate to ensure that we make decisions based on scientific evidence that are in the best interest of patients, who bear 100 per cent of the risk of the products we provide.”

However, since March 2008, a joint research opportunity with the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) has been available to the research community that focuses on the areas of donor deferral strategies and the risk of blood-borne diseases, as well as policy development and social aspects of the blood system. This research could potentially influence a change in the MSM deferral policy.

“To date, there have been no applications for this research funding and it is our hope that the Canadian Federation of Students will work with Canadian Blood Services to help promote the research agenda,” said Monteith

The CFS has also been working in coalition with the Canadian AIDS Society (CAS) and Egale Canada in their efforts to amend the policy.

In Sept. 2009, the CAS suggested a change to the wording of the yes-or-no question on the current survey directed at male donors, which currently reads: “Have you had sex with a man, even one time since 1977?”

“The questionnaire itself is not scientifically valid, which compromises the safety of the system by encouraging self-screening and inciting boycotts on blood donation based on human rights principles,” said Douglas Elliot, a CAS lawyer, in a press release.

The CAS proposed that that the questionnaire instead read: “Have you had sex with another man in the past five years?”

If the response was no, they would be treated like any other donor. If the response was yes, they would respond to a further question: “Have you had unprotected anal sex (i.e. without a condom) with more than one male partner in the last 12 months?”

If the response were yes, they would receive a 12 month deferral. If the response was no, they would receive a six month deferral.

Sane Dube, membership coordinator at the Nine Circles community health centre, which specializes in HIV/AIDS testing and care, explained that positive prevention messaging is a significant factor in effective HIV prevention.

“Public messages that re-enforce stereotypes of only certain groups as being affected by HIV undermine effective HIV prevention,” said Dube.

Dabe stressed that, historically, HIV has proven to affect people from all walks of life, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation.

“In light of this, effective prevention messaging must address behaviours that place individuals at risk of contracting HIV rather than re-enforce stereotypes that only certain groups are at risk,” said Dube.

“Without this distinction, HIV prevention efforts in our communities are inadequate.”