Canada likely to follow U.K's lifting of ban on gay men's blood donations
Health ministers in the United Kingdom decided Thursday to lift an indefinite ban on gay men donating blood, a move Canada seems likely to follow.
The U.K.'s rules from the 1980s said all men who have had sex with men, even once, cannot give blood. But the new policy allows men to donate as long as they haven't had sex with another man in the past 12 months. The change does not alter the risk of contracting disease, health officials said, so people can be sure blood is safe. Canadian Blood Services currently bans donation from all men who have had sex with another man since 1977, citing statistics that say these men are at greater risk for being infected with HIV/AIDS.
But Dr. Dana Devine, the agency's vice-president of medical, scientific and research affairs, said Thursday officials have already begun looking at changing their permanent deferral of gay men. "Certainly we already have a process underway where we're looking to see about changing from a permanent to a time-based deferral," Devine said. The agency is in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. "It's a step-wise thing and we have lots of consultation to do," Devine said. "(But) I do think that it will happen in Canada."
The U.K. joins countries such as Australia and Italy that have altered their bans on gay men giving blood or refocused their eligibility criteria.
Physicians, student groups and gay rights' activists in Canada have long protested the policy to exclude men who have had sex with men from donating blood, calling it outdated, unfair and offensive.
Canadian Blood Services, however, has refrained from change, citing the need for more scientific research, the public's still-vivid concerns over the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s, and Health Canada holding final approval over any policy alterations. "People, I think, appropriately, carry the recollection of that," Devine said of the blood scandal. "We're not going to do anything that adds increased risk."
Doug Elliott, a Toronto lawyer who represented the Canadian AIDS Society during the inquiry into the blood scandal, said Canadians pay a lot of attention to what happens in the United Kingdom, and Thursday's vote will help crack their resistance to change.
"The challenge is making change palatable to various stakeholders, including Health Canada, the government and the people of Canada," Elliott said, adding that tests to screen for HIV/AIDS have vastly improved over the years. "Unfortunately, I fear that it may take another crisis to do it," such as people dying over a shortage of blood donors. "I hope it doesn't get that far."
Helen Kennedy, executive director of Equality For Gays and Lesbians Everywhere Canada, argued that Canadian Blood Services has all the scientific research it needs and should get in line with other countries.
"The science is there, obviously it is," she said. "These are political issues."
The U.K. lifting its lifetime ban will help engender trust in the health system and end discrimination, said Dr. Norbert Gilmore, director of chronic viral disease clinics at the McGill University Health Centre.
"I think people have to get their heads around a lot of issues. We just have to make sure that everyone is on side," said Gilmore, who called the lifetime ban "antiquated" in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year. "I think it's just going to be a matter of time."