Health Canada ends ban on gay male blood donations

A blood donation clinic at a Calgary mall, March 27, 2020. Canadian Blood Services today recommended that Canada end its ban on gay men donating blood, in a submission to Health Canada.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The federal government will no longer automatically bar sexually active gay and bisexual men from donating blood to Canadian Blood Services, ending a policy that has long been criticized as discriminatory and lacking scientific justification.

Health Canada announced the decision Thursday, years after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to remove the ban. Canadian Blood Services expects to implement a new donor screening process, based on sexual behavior rather than orientation, by the end of September.

Canada had previously relaxed rules governing blood donations from some members of the LGBTQ community, but stopped short of treating them the same as heterosexual donors. Prior to Thursday’s announcement, Canada prevented gay and bisexual men, as well as other men who have sex with men, from donating blood unless three months had passed since their last sexual contact with men.

Australia and the United States continue to apply this same three-month restriction, while Britain and Israel already screen donors based on their behavior rather than their orientation, according to the federal government.

Starting Sept. 30, potential donors will be asked whether they have had new or multiple sexual partners in the past three months, regardless of their sex or sexual orientation. If a potential donor answers yes, he or she will be asked if he or she has had anal sex with any of those partners. If he or she has, he or she will have to wait three months from that activity before donating blood. In its decision, the federal government noted that anal sex with new or multiple partners is associated with an elevated risk of HIV transmission.

Blood service recommends Health Canada end ban on gay blood donation.

Canadian Blood Services spokeswoman Catherine Lewis said the new process is based on science.

“This change in criteria is based on science and will allow us to be more inclusive in who can donate, while, as always, ensuring a safe and adequate supply of blood and plasma for patients in Canada,” she said.

LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS advocates greeted the announcement by Health Canada with a silent celebration.

“It’s not all roses and sunshine,” said Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society. “We have to look at the details of how it’s going to be implemented.”

It is important, he said, that staff and volunteers at blood donation clinics have the necessary training to avoid stigmatizing potential donors who were previously barred from giving blood.

While welcoming the new screening process, Mr. Lacasse said it will continue to inappropriately exclude people who donate blood because of their sexual activity.

“If you have anal sex, they don’t ask whether it’s protected or not, so they’re not assessing the risk,” he said. “That opens up another set of stigmatizing and triggering issues.”

Ms. Lewis said Canadian Blood Services knows it needs to restore connections with people who were affected by the ban.

“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 are committed to doing so.”

Canada banned men who have sex with men from donating blood in 1992, when HIV was little known and thousands of blood recipients had recently been infected with the virus from donations. In 2013, Health Canada said gay men could donate blood, as long as they had not had sex with other men in the previous five years.

The Liberal Party promised to end the ban during the 2015 election campaign that brought the Trudeau government to power. Instead, the so-called deferral period was reduced to one year in 2016 and three months in 2019.

Health Canada’s latest revision of the rules was in response to a request from Canadian Blood Services.

The new policy change does not apply in Quebec, where Héma-Québec manages blood services. However, that organization is moving in the same direction. In March, Health Canada said that Héma-Québec could obtain plasma from men who have sex with men without the three-month deferral period, provided that all potential plasma donors were screened for high-risk sexual behavior. The organization plans to implement this process in the fall.

Héma-Québec plans to extend the revised criteria to all blood products in 2023. According to its spokesman, Laurent Paul Ménard, the organization is taking a two-phase approach to gain acceptance from potential recipients.

The Canadian Hemophilia Society (CHS) said Thursday it was “disappointed” with Health Canada’s decision to change the screening process.

“We believe this change will result in an increased, albeit very small, risk of transmission of blood-borne pathogens, such as HIV, to recipients of fresh components,” said Wendy Quinn, president of the CHS. The CHS president supported Quebec’s phased approach. “CHS would have preferred that Health Canada introduce these new donor screening criteria in two stages: first for plasma donors and then, at a later date if the data support it, for fresh component donors.”

Mr. Trudeau said ending the ban was “good news for all Canadians,” but it had taken too long.

At a news conference in Ottawa, he said the ban should have ended 10 to 15 years ago, but that previous governments had failed to conduct research showing it would not affect the safety of the blood supply.

He said his government had invested $5 million in research into the safety aspects of changing blood donation rules, and that multiple scientific reports had shown that “our blood supply will remain safe.”

Ken Monteith, executive director of a coalition of Quebec community organizations fighting HIV/AIDS, said the change was long overdue. Tests for HIV and other pathogens have been around for years, he said.

“Is it celebrated when someone stops discriminating? I guess so,” he said.

With a report from the Canadian Press.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors and give you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Subscribe today.

Leave a Comment