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Canadian Blood Services mulling shorter wait time for gay donors

Current restrictions are discriminatory, not based in science, advocates say

Bobby Hristova · CBC News · Posted: Oct 16, 2018 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: October 16

 As Canadian Blood Services considers reducing the wait time for gay men giving blood, some experts say labelling an entire group of people as high risk isn't the best way to protect the country's blood supply. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press)

As Canadian Blood Services considers reducing the wait time for gay men giving blood, some experts say labelling an entire group of people as high risk isn't the best way to protect the country's blood supply. (Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press)

Canadian Blood Services (CBS) is considering another change to its donation policy that would allow gay men who have abstained from sex for three months to give blood, down from the current one-year waiting period. 

The organization — which manages the national supply of blood products — says it has been reviewing research that suggests the abstinence period can be reduced and still keep the blood supply safe.

CBS is "currently discussing the results of the analysis with stakeholders and partners," including patient and LGBT groups, and its provincial counterpart Héma-Québec, said spokesperson Ross FitzGerald in an email. 

Health Canada would have to approve the change. CBS did not provide a date or timeline for the potential change.

Gay and bisexual men have faced restrictions since the tainted blood scandal of the 1980s, when thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV or hepatitis C from donated blood. 

A lifetime ban was lifted in 2013, when Canada moved to a policy that allowed donations from men who said they had abstained from sex with other men for five years. In 2016, that deferral period was dropped to one year. 

 Human rights advocate Christopher Karas has filed a complaint about the deferral period at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Human rights advocate Christopher Karas has filed a complaint about the deferral period at the Canadian Human Rights Commission. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"Any reduction in the deferral is a good thing," said Dr. Dustin Costescu, a family planning specialist, and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, who is gay.

"I would imagine they've landed on three months because it's the standard accepted window," for accurate testing, he said. 

The window exists because an early HIV infection might not appear during a blood test. Tests also can't identify if someone has been in contact with an HIV-positive person. 

Someone becomes HIV positive when their body begins resisting the virus, Costescu said.  

CBS considers men who have sex with men a high-risk group, as they account for the largest proportion of new HIV infections reported in Canada.

In 2016, this group represented 44.1 per cent of reported HIV cases in Canada.

Attainable targets

Many have pushed for CBS and Health Canada to drop the deferral period altogether, calling it discriminatory.

"It's still having the same effect as the policy that came before it and it still makes us feel 'less than,'" said Christopher Karas, a human rights advocate who has filed a complaint about it at the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

"It needs to apply across the board to everyone. If that's not the case, then the policy shouldn't exist."

Read the full story here.

Christopher Karas