U.K. lifts MSM blood ban

Canada may be rethinking restrictions placed on blood donation as the U.K. introduces a new policy giving gay and bisexual men the right to donate blood.

Earlier this month, the U.K. lifted the life-long ban preventing men who have sex with men (MSM) from making blood donations. Starting in November, only gay or bisexual men who have had sex with another man in the past 12 months will be prevented from donating.

Canadian Blood Services (CBS) currently bans any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from ever donating blood due to an increased risk of HIV, but that could be changing as well.

Dana Devine, vice president of scientific, medical and research affairs for CBS, said that most blood systems, including Canada’s, are reviewing their deferral policies.

“We’ve had these deferrals in place for a very long time,” said Devine, adding that since countries now have better tests for the HIV virus, people are re-evaluating the deferrals.

In order for Canada to review the ban, she said CBS will need to present a logical argument for switching from a permanent deferral to a time-based deferral that is acceptable to the patients who end up using blood products.

A 2003 Canadian study titled “The risks and benefits of accepting men who have had sex with men as blood donors” found that a 12-month deferral policy for men who have sex with men “would potentially result” in one HIV contaminated unit for every 136,000 additional donations, “for an overall increase in HIV risk estimated at eight per cent.” The study estimated that the number of overall donations in Canada would increase by 1.3 per cent.
“The risk increment [. . . ] would be very small but not zero,” researchers concluded.

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) has run a national campaign called “End the Ban,” in partnership with the Canadian AIDS Society and EGALE Canada, since last summer.

“I am happy to see the U.K. finally taking this step,” said Marakary Bayo, the Manitoba representative for the CFS.

Bayo said the ban is a significant issue for the CFS because they represent students who are being discriminated against by the policy.

“It is blatant discrimination to ban gay and bisexual men from donating blood. [ . . . ] Part of our student body includes gay and bisexual men and this ban infringes on their rights,” he said.

The CFS campaign has four goals, which include lobbying CBS to keep the blood supply safe by doing explicit donor screening based on individual behaviour as opposed to demographics.

Chad Smith, executive director of the Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, Man., also said that Canada’s current policy is discriminatory because it targets a specific group.

“While this change will open things up somewhat for some men, most men will still be off limits to donate and this ultimately hurts the blood supply,” he said. “Policy needs to examine behaviours, not target groups.”

Devine explained that part of the problem is that the blood system in Canada has to screen samples in large groups because it doesn’t have enough resources required to perform a comprehensive assessment of every individual’s risk.

She said as a result, people with lower risks get deferred because of the higher risk associated with the large group they belong to.