Orlando a stark reminder that gay men still face obstacles to donating blood
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TORONTO — In the aftermath of Sunday's massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, blood collection clinics were overwhelmed with people volunteering to roll up their sleeves to donate the gift of life.
Yet many among the most motivated — men who have sex with men — were ineligible because of criteria meant to protect the blood supply from HIV, despite rigorous testing of every donation.
In the U.S., men who have sex with men are prohibited from donating blood within a year of their last sexual encounter. Canada's current system is even more restrictive, banning blood donations from men who engage in same-sex relations for five years, though that's a far cry from the lifetime exclusion enacted during the height of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s.
Michael Bach, founder and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion, said his Toronto-based organization is campaigning to have the deferral period lifted, arguing it's discriminatory and not based on a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting a minimal risk to the blood supply.
When the campaign, called "There's No Such Thing as Gay Blood: #EndTheBan," was launched last year, Bach said many people within the LGBT community were unaware of a deferral period and incensed that such exclusionary criteria still existed.
"I as a gay man who is married and have been in a monogamous relationship for seven years, I cannot donate blood today," Bach said Tuesday.
Even the two agencies that look after this country's blood supply — Canadian Blood Services (CBS) and Hema Quebec — agree it's time to reduce the deferral period for men who have sex with men — before eliminating the ban altogether.
In 2013, Health Canada lifted the lifetime prohibition on blood donations from gay men, instituting the five-year deferral period.
In March, Canadian Blood Services and Hema Quebec submitted a proposal to Health Canada to follow the lead of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to drop the deferral to one year, said Dr. Mindy Goldman, medical director of donor and clinical services at CBS.
"We thought that moving to a one-year deferral period would be a reasonable next step," based on scientific information and international practice, Goldman said from Ottawa.
Men who have sex with men are still considered a high-risk group for HIV infection, based on public health disease-tracking data, but the number of Canadians who contract the virus has dropped exponentially since the AIDS epidemic was in its zenith in the '80s and early '90s, prior to the advent of often life-saving antiretroviral drugs.
As well, "our testing has improved tremendously over the years," said Goldman, explaining that each blood donation goes through two different tests looking for evidence of HIV and other potentially deadly transmissible pathogens before being allowed into the blood supply that's sent to hospitals.
"And so this is why we feel we could move from a five-year to a one-year deferral as the next step.... And we feel that it's a very safe next step."
Goldman said CBS and Hema Quebec are waiting to hear Health Canada's decision, which is expected to take a few months, even though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals campaigned on a pledge to remove the deferment criteria entirely.
Bach said his organization is willing to help settle the question of whether allowing blood donations from men who have sex with men would threaten the safety of the blood supply by raising money to fund such research.
Right now, he said, decisions are still being made based on fear — fear that goes back to the tainted blood scandal of the early '80s, when untested donations left about 2,000 Canadians infected with HIV and an estimated 30,000 more with hepatitis C.
"And I can understand that fear. I do not want to receive a blood donation that is going to change my life dramatically by giving me HIV, hepatitis, any number of things," Bach said.
"But the blood is tested quite thoroughly, much more than it ever was, so it's time for the legislation to catch up."
Goldman said she realizes people are distressed when they offer to donate much-needed blood and are told they can't, "whether they are gay men or they lived in the U.K." between 1980 and 1996, when they could have been exposed to mad cow disease in tainted beef.
"It is frustrating for people. I think that's why we should strive to be as minimally exclusive as possible while obviously maintaining the safety of (the blood supply for) both the donors and the recipients."
Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.