July 12, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — The waiting period to donate blood for gay men in Canada who have not been sexually active with another man will be reduced from five years to one year beginning Aug. 15.
Canadian Blood Services (CBS) recently announced the four-year reduction in the deferral period to donate for gay men not engaged in sexual activity.
“This is an exciting, incremental step forward in updating our blood donation criteria based on the latest scientific evidence,” Dr. Graham Sher of the CBS said.
However, the decision is creating a stir across Canada in the LGBTQ community and from those concerned about the possibility of tainted blood.
LGBTQ activist Brandon Yan called the shorter waiting period a “tiny leap forward” but criticized the timing of the announcement last month after the Orlando shootings and in the midst of Pride Month.
“That's still a huge commitment to not have sex with each other for a long time. We would have to forgo being intimate, and having sex, and all those wonderful things … just to give this resource that is apparently so sorely needed,” Yan said in an interview with CBC News.
Those who question the shorter deferral period point out that sexually active gay men are considered a “high risk group” for blood donation. Mindy Goldman, medical director of donor and clinic services for CBS, observed that gay men make up 49 percent of new HIV cases in Canada.
Gwen Landolt, vice president and spokesperson for Canada’s REAL Women, told LifeSiteNews that CBS is “spinning the wheel for no reason.”
“There has been no proof that people will be safe,” she said. “It is going to cause a lot of confusion and a lot of problems with the public. Certainly it will undermine the credibility of the blood services. Who wants to give blood and who wants to take it when you’re so uncertain of the safety?”
The CBS defended the shorter deferral period. “Our first priority continues to be safety, as patients bear 100 percent of the risk associated with changes to our eligibility criteria,” they stated in a press release announcing the change. However, CBS also said it is open to the possibility of behavior-based screening – something that will require more scientific research and testing.
The decision is reminiscent of the 2013 policy change that lifted the longstanding lifetime ban on men who have sex with men (MSM) from donating blood. This had been in effect since 1977 – the year that HIV began its epidemic and infected hundreds of Canadians from untested blood donations through the Red Cross. The blood scandal of the 1980’s heavily influenced the policy that barred potential male donors from donating blood or blood products because of their sexual activity.
And now, “Medical evidence has come a long way since the 1980s. We recognize the tainted blood scandal and the devastating consequences that had, but it’s time to move forward,” said Kristopher Wells, the Director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta.
Canadian Health Minister Jane Philpott said last week that “there is an incredible desire and certainly a commitment on the part of our government to work toward further decreasing that donor deferral period. The desire is to be able to have those deferrals based on behavior as opposed to sexual orientation.”
CBS studied two years of data to determine the safety of shortening the deferral period and found its results supported the change. In a recent interview, Dr. Dana Divine, chief medical and scientific officer for CBS, said, “I think we were able to demonstrate that there was no negative effect of going to a shorter time period.”
CBS spokeswoman Janne Charbonneau considers this as a “step in the right direction,” though “we would prefer to have no deferral period whatsoever for MSM blood donors — that is, men who have sex with men.”
The shorter deferral period is seen as a compromise between the liberals’ campaign to remove the ban entirely and the still-imperfect scientific technology to test for HIV.
“The 12 months was where we had data to be still in the comfort zone for the recipients to feel that we were not doing anything that made blood supply unsafe [and] that we also had data to reassure ourselves that we were maintaining safety of the blood system,” Dr. Divine said.
The change is seen both as a victory and as a loss on both sides of the issue. Members of the LGBTQ community are disappointed in the one-year deferral period of abstinence and say it’s discriminatory. Those who oppose the shorter deferral period believe it creates a much higher risk for tainted blood.