Health Canada Lifts Blood Donation Ban

Some see this as a positive step forward toward ending a practice that discriminates against gay men.

Blood donationMartin Lloyd, an information services technician in his late 20s (name changed to protect his identity) has always wanted to help out and donate blood. “But I’m gay,” he says, “and Health Canada says I’m not allowed to give blood. I’m perfectly healthy; I just can’t contribute. ”

For over 30 years, Health Canada has banned any man who has had sex with another man (MSM) from donating blood. However, this policy has been revoked as of May 2013, and starting this past Monday, 22nd of July, MSM have been allowed to donate blood, but only if they have been abstinent for at least the past five years.

Some see this as a positive step forward toward ending a practice that discriminates against gay men. Lloyd points out that “this is about feeling accepted in Montreal, in Canada. Some gay men will now be free to pitch in, and that’s good.”

One reason Health Canada is lifting this ban is because of effective new blood screening techniques. Dr. Jean-Pierre Routy, HIV pathogenesis expert at the Royal Victoria Hospital of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), describes modern HIV tests as being “very effective beginning ten days after initial infection.” Given this fact, he goes on to ask “why would Health Canada demand a waiting period of five years rather than two weeks?”

Dr. Norbert Gilmore, Director of the MUHC’s Chronic Viral Illness Service, gives this perspective on Health Canada’s decision: “can you imagine asking people not to engage in sexual activity for five years just so that they can voluntarily donate blood?”

Gilmore sees this as a trust issue for Health Canada toward the gay community. “Either Canadians are going to trust that MSM who donate blood will be honest about their sexual health, or we will continue to discriminate against them,” he says. “While Health Canada has the best intentions, the message that they are sending to the gay community is ‘you’re presumed infected until proven otherwise,’ and that’s not a very good way to end this stigma.”

When asked if he plans to donate blood in the future, Lloyd replies that he would like to, but doesn’t think it’s realistic. “I’d have to break up with my boyfriend today so that I can donate in 2018,” he says. “Maybe this is just a first step, and in a few years Health Canada will reduce the waiting period to two weeks.”

Canada is not the first nation to lift the ban on MSM blood donations: in 2011 the United Kingdom, Finland and Australia lifted the ban and imposed a one year deferral period. Meanwhile, as of last week, debates are underway in the French parliament to lift the ban on blood donations by MSM.