Bad Blood: Why Canada’s gay men want to donate and can’t

After one year of studies, the results were in. Experts, advocacy groups and others stared at their computer screens, exchanging thoughts and questions through the phone in September. They realized their discussions at the start of 2018 became a real possibility.

Now, Canadian Blood Services (CBS), which oversees the country’s blood products, is planning a proposal to shorten the policy that prevents gay men from donating blood. If Health Canada accepts the new proposal, gay men could donate after being sex-free for three months instead of waiting one year. CBS hasn’t confirmed a date or timeline.

The policy, nicknamed the gay blood ban, has affected gay and bisexual men (MSM) for about 40 years. It started after donations tainted the country’s blood supply, infecting thousands of Canadians with HIV and hepatitis C. In 2013, CBS changed their lifetime ban for gay men – they could donate, but only if they were abstinent for five years. In 2016, it became one year.

View a timeline of how the policy came to be

Helen Kennedy was one of the people on that call, looking at those results and talking about moving the policy forward. “Working with (CBS) has been very gradual and very measured and frustrating but it’s better to be at the table and talking,” she says. Kennedy is the executive director of Egale Canada, a national LGBTQ+ organization. She celebrates the planned proposal, especially after Egale’s online campaign this summer.

Christopher Karas has been in a legal battle with Canadian Blood Services since 2016. (Bobby Hristova/RED Magazine)

It ran the Blood Surrogates campaign, which used colourful cartoons and HIV statistics about MSM to convince people to donate for those who can’t. One of their facts reveals someone’s HIV status can be detected in nine days. Based on that, Kennedy says the removal of the ban – let alone a proposal to shorten it – is long overdue. “We’re not full participants in our own country. It’s a sad reminder that even though we have a good legislation, we still have to change hearts and minds,” she says.

The ban is controversial. CBS has been scrambling to solve the country’s low blood supply but still denies potential gay donors. “Over 30,000 donors needed by Jan. 6,” announced the non-profit group in an e-mail on December 17. Christopher Karas, a human rights advocate who’s also gay, says the ban is discriminatory. He learned he couldn’t donate as a high school student.

“They should’ve been able to use my blood,” he says. “I had my blood test results in my hand.” CBS has been embroiled in a legal battle with Karas at the Canadian Human Rights Commission for two years. CBS says the ban is in place to protect the nation’s blood supply.

“No one is discounting the importance of learning from the tainted blood scandal but that was 30 years ago and things have changed,” says Dr. Dustin Costescu, a family planning specialist and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.

He’s also gay. Costescu says CBS may be moving to three months because it’s a time period accepted by the scientific community. While he’s happy there’s progress, Costescu still thinks it’s an unrealistic amount of time and couldn’t imagine any of the patients he sees every day follow it.

CBS says any shorter period has a higher chance of not detecting HIV when it first infects the body. It considers MSM a high-risk population as they account for almost half of all reported HIV cases in Canada.  But Costescu also thinks the proposal should be accepted without trouble, especially because of Trudeau’s 2015 pledge to scrap the ban altogether.

Haran Vijayanathan was the grand marshal for Pride Toronto 2018’s festival. He also hopes to be a blood donor someday. (Bobby Hristova/RED Magazine)

Karas says he sent a message to Trudeau’s personal email about his lawsuit and the ban, but never received a response. He calls Canada’s policy is archaic, especially when compared to other countries.

A 12-month ban is in line with the policies of the U.S., Australia and Japan. But other countries, including Italy and Spain, focus on each donor’s behaviour instead of limiting donation by time. CBS says it plans to move to a similar model but needs to see how the three-month policy goes first.

In an interview with the Community-Based Research Centre for Gay Men’s Health, in February 2018, Dana Devine, chief scientist of CBS, says for now, they still have enough blood without gay men as donors. Until the policy changes, the line of gay men who want to donate grows.

“I took my name off the organ donor list,” says Haran Vijyanathan, executive director of the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention. “If they don’t want my blood while I’m alive, why should I give them my organs when I’m dead?”

But even if he didn’t take his name of the list, they still wouldn’t accept his organs – unless the circumstances were dire.

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