1980s rule in place to protect blood recipients, says organization
It took me about a week to work up the courage to walk into the blood clinic. The sterile smell filled my nostrils as I grabbed the clipboard from the front desk.
I sat down on one of the hard, lavender-coloured chairs and began to fill out the medical forms.
Feeling well? Yes. Taking any medication? No. Recent AIDS test? Yes. Any travel? No.
When I was done with the forms, a small, grey-haired nurse escorted me through the waiting room and to the rear of the clinic. Her orange crocs squeaked with every step on the linoleum.
“What inspired you to donate blood?” She said.
I explained to her that a few months earlier my closest friend had received a transfusion that allowed her to walk after becoming paralyzed. I was so grateful for her recovery that I felt I could face my fear and donate in her honour.
The nurse explained that there were 14 more questions that needed answering and requested that I answer them honestly, despite their embarrassing nature.
“Now Mr. Kingsmith, have you tested positive for AIDS?” She asked unapologetically.
“I’ve been tested and I don’t have AIDS.” I replied
“Have you used any illegal drugs in the last 12 months?”
“Have you ever taken money or drugs in exchange for sex?”
“Have you had sex with a man, even one time, since 1977?”
“Um, yes. I’m gay.”
“Alright Mr. Kingsmith,” she said getting up from her chair. “We cannot accept
Photo by James Wilt your donation at this time.”
I was informed that Canadian Blood Services does not accept donations from men who have sex with men, which I was not aware of.
“I can’t donate blood because I’m gay?” I said to the nurse trying to keep my cool.
“No, we cannot accept donations from any men who have sex with men,” she said again. “As per our guidelines, you are prevented from ever donating blood.”
I left the clinic feeling discriminated against and when I got home I started to look into the archaic rule. It did not surprise me to discover that it was implemented in 1983 because as the rule suggests, “men who have had sex with other men are at greater risk for HIV/AIDS infection than other people.”
Despite the fact that I recently had an AIDS test and it came back negative, I was still refused the right to donate. Canadian Blood Services quickly dismissed me, a monogamous gay man, into an outdated stereotype.
“The rule was set in place in response to the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s,” said Deb Steele-Kretschmer from Canadian Blood Services. “At the time they did not know much about the disease and there was not good testing available.”
In my view, this means that they are prohibiting a large population of Canadian men from donating blood in the face of a growing blood shortage.
The Screening Process
Canadian Blood Services manages Canada’s blood supply and all donations are screened for any number of diseases and deficiencies including syphilis, hepatitis B and C, HIV 1 and 2 (the AIDS causing virus) and West Nile Virus among others. If any abnormalities are found, the blood is discarded and the donor is notified.
Steele-Kretschmer said that there is a small window of time in which the HIV/AIDS virus cannot be detected by the blood tests says. Canadian Blood Services’ primary commitment is to the safety and security of the recipients, who bear all the risk.
I understand that the recipient of the blood is the one that assumes all of the consequences of an infected donation, but there are no regulations in place to protect those recipients from heterosexual people who might be infected with the virus.
In a response to an outbreak of West Nile Virus in 2003, Canadian Blood Services said that all blood donors should continue donating as per usual and that the greatest risk to the Canadian blood supply is in a shortage of blood donations.
HIV and AIDS in Canada
Infectious diseases do not follow stereotypes. HIV/AIDS does not exist only in the gay community, nor does it exist only in men.
According to national statistics, 25 per cent of all HIV cases in Canada are found in women, about 8, 500 women in just 10 years. However, there are no measures in place to prevent women from donating blood.
In fact, only 46.7 per cent of all HIV cases in Canada are from men who have sex with men according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Although this number is relatively high, it accounts for less than half the cases in Canada.
If gay men were allowed to donate, it could fill a large demand for blood donations in the country. Considering the ire aroused in online forums, there are many gay and bisexual men who are willing to donate.
“Canadian Blood Services has submitted a policy change to Health Canada to amend the lifetime ban to five years,” said Steele-Kretschmer.
Although this change is not anticipated to greatly increase the donor base, she said the 5-year ruling would allow abstinent gay men, men who had a sexual experience in their teens, men who are currently heterosexual and men who were raped as boys that are currently deferred to be able to donate blood.
“5 years is not ideal, but it is an incremental change,” said Steele-Kretschmer.
I for one am not prepared to put my life on hold for five years just so I can donate blood, but perhaps I am just the greater fool expecting better.
Would you feel comfortable accepting donor blood if you knew it came from a gay man?