Health Canada reduces abstinence period for men who have sex with men to donate blood

Health Canada has accepted Canadian Blood Services&rsquo; and H&eacute;ma-Qu&eacute;bec&rsquo;s proposal to shorten the blood donation deferral period from five years to one year. This change will take effect across the country August 15.</p>

Men who have sex with men (MSM) are currently unable to donate blood if they were sexually active within a five-year period. The five-year period was introduced in 2013, prior to which MSM were barred indefinitely from donating blood. According to Canadian Blood Services (CBS), the deferral period is in place to lower the risk of transmitting HIV which can be present in the donated blood. However, this policy is only placed on MSM.

Brie Treviranus, the Glow Center’s protest director, believes that the policy change was motivated by public protest.

“We believe that the policy change was motivated by a combination of factors, including a backlash from the greater LGBTQ+ community, the banning of CBS blood donation clinics in a few Canadian universities, the successful implementation of shorter wait periods in other countries, and, hopefully, the realization that the former five year wait period was incredibly problematic,” he said. 

Although all blood is tested, there is a brief period shortly after infection when HIV is not detectable. If an individual were to donate blood during this time, it would not be detected in the test and the donation would be infectious to the patient. However, the Liberal government believes that even the shortened period is not reflective of the scientific data and hopes to eradicate the MSM blood donation ban as is stated in their platform.

“The Canadian Blood Services ban men who have been sexually active with men at any point in the previous five years from donating blood, even if it has been entirely safe and monogamous. This policy ignores scientific evidence and must end,” the platform reads.

CBS previously maintained that “[CBS] blood donor clinics are not staffed to provide individual medical risk consultations for every doctor. The criteria for blood donation must be simple and easy to apply. For this reason, all blood donor screening in Canada related to recipient risk is based on population risk categories rather than individual characteristics.” 

CBS states on their website that the window period for HIV is approximately nine days, much less than the one year waiting period.

“While we are glad that Canadian Blood Services’ MSM policies are being reviewed and discussed, and while we recognize that the decreased wait period is a step in the right direction, we believe that discrimination is still evident,” Treviranus said. “They claim that the deferral period is supported by scientific evidence, however, there is [cited] research that suggests a significantly shorter wait period.”

Dr. Mark Wainberg, a professor of medicine and director of the McGill University AIDS Centre, believes that Canadian Blood Services should include some questions about donor behaviour in its screening of gay men.

In an interview with Global News, he states, “If you’re a man in a long-term, stable relationship and you and your partner are both HIV negative, then the risks are exactly the same as those of a heterosexual couple.”

Jane Philpott, Canada’s health minister, spoke to the media regarding the topic after a cabinet meeting June 20.

“I recognize that this four-year reduction in the deferral period is not a radical change, and will not change the circumstances for many [MSM] donors who are currently prevented from donating blood. That being said, I would rather see Canada take a step in the right direction than stand still,” Philpott said.

CBS has acknowledged this matter on their website.

“[CBS] is also exploring the possibility of moving toward behaviour-based screening. We are working with the LGBTQ community, patient groups and other stakeholders to determine how to gather the scientific evidence required to determine whether it is possible to reliably identify low-risk, sexually active men who have sex with men. This research is crucial to moving from a time-based deferral … to behaviour-based screening,” it reads.

The Glow Center is already planning their next steps.

“The next step is to implement a policy that is non-discriminatory and accurately evidence-based. This is why The Glow Centre has decided to protest on Parliament Hill on September 30, to inform the Liberal government, Health Canada, and Canadian Blood Services that we disapprove of the most recent policy change and believe that it should have been evidence-based and non-discriminatory,” said Treviranus.