Published April 28, 2022

Canadian Blood Services to end gay 'blood ban,' bring in behaviour-based screening

Prime Minister Trudeau says the ban should have ended 10 to 15 years ago
Canadian Blood Services

By Marie Woolf in Ottawa

Health Canada has approved an end to the ban on gay men donating blood, a change welcomed by LGBTQ advocates but criticized as long overdue.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said ending the discriminatory ban was "good news for all Canadians" but had taken too long. 

Speaking at a news conference in Ottawa, Trudeau said the ban should have ended 10 to 15 years ago, but research proving it would not affect the safety of the blood supply had not been done by previous governments. 

He said his government invested $5 million dollars in research into the safety aspects of changing the blood donation rules and multiple scientific reports had proven "our blood supply will continue to be safe." 

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan said the announcement marked a "magnificent day" and another step forward for LGBTQ rights. 

Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, who disclosed his first partner had died of AIDS 30 years ago, said the change in donation rules now meant that "my blood is as good as anyone's blood in this room" and was a step forward in human rights and "ending stigma."

Trudeau's Liberals promised to end the ban on gay men donating blood during the 2015 election campaign.

Health Canada Thursday approved the request by Canadian Blood Services to end the policy that restricts men who have sex with men from donating blood for three months. 

The blood service had asked Health Canada to allow it to scrap questions about gender or sexuality, basing screening on higher-risk sexual behaviour such as anal sex instead.

By the end of September, potential donors will be asked instead if they have had new or multiple sexual partners in the last three months, no matter their gender or sexual orientation. 

If any potential donor replies yes, they would then be asked whether they have had anal sex with any of those partners. If they have, they would need to wait three months since that activity before donating blood.

The blood agency said asking about sexual behaviour, rather than sexual orientation, will allow it to more reliably assess the risk of infections such as HIV that can be transmitted through transfusions. 

It said the shift in screening policy comes after "countless hours" of work by LGBTQ advocates and other groups, who have long called for a change.

"This criteria change is science-informed and will enable us to be more inclusive about who can donate while, as always, ensuring safe, adequate blood and plasma supplies for patients in Canada,” said Catherine Lewis, a spokeswoman for the blood service.

“This change is a significant step, but we know we still have considerable work to do to build trust and repair relationships with LGBTQ communities, and we commit to doing so.” 

Eric Duncan, Conservative MP for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, said "discrimination like this should not take this long to resolve." 

"Finally, after multiple delays, Canada is one step closer to ending the long-standing and discriminatory blood ban in this country," Duncan said. "After years of delay, we are still at least five months away from this change taking effect."

Randall Garrison and Blake Desjarlais, the NDP's critic and deputy critic for LGBTQ rights, said in a joint statement, that "finally allowing men who have sex with men to donate blood is a long-overdue victory for men who have sex with men, community members and allies who have worked tirelessly for years to push the government to act."

Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, acknowledged in a briefing that some donors may take offence at being asked about their sexual partners and whether they have had anal sex.

But he said all donors, regardless of their sexual orientation, would be asked the same questions about "high-risk sexual behaviour," not just men who have sex with men.

He said the questions were justified because "anal sex is a significantly higher risk factor" for HIV.

Sher said the blood service was taking an evidence-based approach to the change based on research not just in Canada but from around the world, including epidemiological studies and statistical modelling. 

He said the approach was very similar to the one taken in the United Kingdom, where the gay blood ban has been successfully lifted and replaced with questions to all donors about their sexual behaviour, including anal sex.

Sher said the risk of contracting a disease from donated blood was "exceedingly, exceedingly low" and there are several layers of screening, including for HIV, as well as blood purification before samples are used. 

He said the change in screening questions would lead to "no measurable increase in the risk" of HIV transmission.

"Our approach to donor screening and ultimately patient safety is a multi-layered approach," he said. 

This is the latest change to the blood donation rules for men who have sex with men. In 2013, a lifetime ban on giving blood was changed to a five-year ban, which was reduced to one year in 2016 and three months in 2019. 

Health Canada said to inform its decision it convened a group of scientific and medical experts on blood safety. 

"Today's authorization is a significant milestone toward a more inclusive blood donation system countrywide, and builds on progress in scientific evidence made in recent years," it said in a statement. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2022.

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