Vancouver clinic allows gay men to donate blood for research

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On May 12, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) group proposed revised guidelines on blood donation policies regarding donors who are male and have had sex with men (MSM).</p>

The new revisions recommend lifting the lifetime ban on MSM and allowing donors to give blood if they have abstained from having sex with another man for over one year. Although significant progress in blood testing has greatly reduced the period between infection and detection, controversy still surrounds reducing the ban.

In Canada, a special blood donor clinic in Vancouver, British Columbia recently garnered a lot of media attention. Deemed the “Rainbow Donor Clinic,” the facility was opened on campus at the University of British Columbia for one day to encourage gay men to donate blood for research purposes.

Units collected were not used for transfusions but instead were distributed to the Network Centre for Applied Development (NetCAD), a research group under the Canadian Blood Services (CBS). It is the only clinic of its kind where deferred donors — people in high -risk groups — can donate blood to contribute to the research efforts in the field of transfusion safety.

Chad Walters, an activist and social work student from the University of British Columbia, is the person behind the Rainbow Clinic initiative.

“I wanted to make the [MSM] community aware that there are ways that we could save lives and make a positive impact,” Walters said in regards to any resentment the community may harbour towards Health Canada for implementing the ban.

Originally, the ban was initiated by the Red Cross in 1985, the previous organization responsible for all blood services in Canada and the States.

Prior to 1971, the Red Cross had collected blood donations from prison inmates, unknowingly or knowingly infected with hepatitis and AIDS. Blood tests for hepatitis C did not begin until after 1989 when the virus was identified. Testing for HIV began only in 1985.

An investigation into the Canadian blood system launched by the Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Horace Krever found Red Cross criminally negligent — tragically, 95 per cent of hemophiliacs who received a blood transfusion in the 1980s contracted hepatitis C.

The ban began after a slew  of patients who transmitted HIV or hepatitis C through blood transfusions filed lawsuits against the Red Cross. Due to a higher prevalence of HIV in the gay men population, they were forbidden from giving blood.

“Part of me doesn’t feel comfortable calling it discrimination,” Walters said. “It really boils down to statistics…and risk levels. And nowhere does it say anything about — in Canada’s policy anyway, it doesn’t say anything about being gay or your identity. It comes down to that activity — the high risk activity.”

Currently, the Canadian Blood Services screen donations for HIV through an antibody test and a Nucleic Acid Test (NAT). NAT, implemented in May 2001, is able to detect the virus in a carrier who has not started producing serum antibodies because the virus has yet to replicate in high enough quantities. It tests for the virus itself by checking for viral RNA. According to the FDA, NAT reduces the window period to 12 days.

In many countries, the ban on MSM is only one year. The list includes the United Kingdom, Argentina, and Brazil. In South Africa, the ban is further reduced to six months. Until 2013, Health Canada imposed a lifetime ban on MSM. The ban was changed to allow MSM to donate blood if they haven’t had sex with another man for five years before the donation.

Twelve years ago, Walters was rejected from donating blood. Since then he has participated in numerous focus groups with the CBS and adopted an inspiring optimism towards the progression of the MSM policy.

“I am very aware that change is happening.”

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