Right now, men who have sex with other men cannot give blood unless they abstain from sex for five years. But there is a proposal in the works to change the five-year deferral to a one- year deferral.
Either way any sort of ban or deferral on donating blood is discriminatory, according to Dr. Miles Bowman bio-psychology of sexual behaviour professor at UOIT and Mark Hammann coordinator of the gay men’s outreach program at AIDS committee Durham.
According to Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS), men who have had sex with other men are at the highest risk for contracting HIV, which is why a lifetime ban was placed in 1977.
In 2013, however, CBS used experts to decide what would be a good deferral period compared to the lifetime ban.
Their assessment showed that reducing the lifetime ban to a five year ban was safe.
But that doesn’t sit well with Bowman.
“I don’t think a five year ban is reasonable, or the right approach,” he says. Hammann agrees. “It’s kind of like a time warp, things have fundamentally changed over the last 30 years,” he says.
CBS says it now has sufficient information to justify a one-year deferral policy. In late March, CBS proposed a one-year deferral to Health Canada and is now waiting for approval, says Mindy Goldman, physician and medical director for donor and clinical services at CBS.
“We did prepare a solution that we sent to Health Canada at the end of March,” says Goldman. “It’s up to them now to assess the proposal and to get back to us in terms of whether they agree or disagree.”
After collecting blood, CBS uses something called nucleic acid testing to screen for several things, including HIV-AIDS. But not all locations offer this service, which is faster and more sensitive than other tests.
“I don’t think (of any time) a deferral is the magic number,” says Bowman. He believes CBS’ pre-screening questions should focus on whether a person has had unsafe sex instead of focusing on their sexual orientation.
Bowman points out that biologically a woman who has unsafe anal sex is more likely to contract a STD or STI than a man, though they are not asked in the pre-screening questions whether they are engaged in anal sex in the past.
Goldman says asking deeper questions might create more healthy donors, although before that can be established more research has to be done.
“If we could find a way that could lead to fewer donors and maintain safety to me that will be a better way,” she says.
Hammann says gay men are at the highest risk for contracting HIV, although Afro-Caribbean men and women are a high risk community as are indigenous men and women.
Bowman says, as a homosexual man, he feels completely discriminated against knowing that other high risk groups don’t have a deferral while gay men do.
Trent University student Daniel Ross says when he tried clinic to give blood he was told CBS wouldn’t take it from a homosexual male. Instead of asking if he had any form of sexual contact within the last five year, he says he was told he cannot give blood and was quickly dismissed.
“Any sort of ban in place that is based on an immutable characteristic, something someone cannot change about themselves, is discriminatory,” says Bowman. Although the ban is not on gay men it is still on gay men who have sex, which he calls an “eye rolling threshold.”
He says the deferral or ban would never be placed on black men who have sex, despite having the second highest risk, because it is discriminatory. Yet CBS placed the deferral on homosexual men.
Goldman says in the past immigrants from Haiti had a deferral period, but after research and as time passed, the deferral was removed.
She says the original five-year deferral was just the first step, with the one-year deferral being the next. Goldman says with more research it is possible that the deferral will be abandoned but as of right now CBS is still working on the one-year deferral.
Bowman feels the ban is “discriminatory” and completely unnecessary. He doesn’t believe the deferral will ever be completely eliminated but hopes to one day give blood again like he did before coming out as gay.