Canadian Blood Services ends ban on blood for men who have sex with men

As Canadian Blood Services prepares to end its policy that prohibits men who have sex with men from donating blood for three months after being sexually active, an advocate who has fought to change it says the new policy is still discriminatory.

Under the new policy, which has been approved by Health Canada and first reported by The Canadian Press, all donors will be required to indicate whether they have had new or multiple sexual partners in the past three months, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

Instead of being asked about sex or sexuality, potential donors will be screened on high-risk sexual behaviors, such as anal sex. If the individual has had anal sex with these partners, they should wait three months since that activity before donating blood.

Christopher Karas, who filed a human rights complaint against Health Canada to remove the report, says the policy still stigmatizes gay, bisexual and some transgender men.

“I want to be excited about this news. Really. I think it’s kind of historic in that we’re seeing the end of the postponement,” he said in an interview with CBC News.

Christopher Karas, a gay man who filed a human rights complaint against Health Canada, says the new policy still stigmatizes gay and bisexual men. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“But I know a lot of gay, bi and trans men will still be banned by this policy, so I think it’s a bit unfortunate that the government has decided that’s the approach they want to take,” Karas said.

The new policy will be implemented no later than September 30. The agency says asking questions about sexual behavior, rather than sexual orientation, will allow it to more reliably assess the risk of infections such as HIV that can be transmitted by infusion.

It also says the change comes after “countless hours” of work by LGBTQ and other groups, who have long advocated for policy change.

Anal sex is a high risk factor, doctor says

Karas notes that there are no questions about vaginal sex in the questionnaire, even though it is one of the main modes of HIV infection.

“They won’t screen for vaginal sex, they won’t screen for condom use or any other risky behavior that they should screen for,” he said.

“What they are saying is that gay, bisexual and transgender men [people]… mainly practice anal sex. They stigmatize us with this new policy. That’s what they’re saying with this new policy,” Karas said.

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discusses overturning the blood ban:

Trudeau discusses overturning blood ban

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Health Canada has approved Canadian Blood Services’ request to end the policy prohibiting men who have sex with men from donating blood for three months. 1:34

Canadian Blood Services CEO Dr. Graham Sher says the policy is based on extensive national and international research.

“The evidence is really clear that anal sex is always a significantly higher risk factor for disease transmission, like HIV. Then it’s vaginal sex or oral sex,” Sher said.

When asked why people who use condoms can’t be exempted from deferral, Sher says it’s hard for donors to accurately remember whether they used a condom for every sexual interaction.

“While this is a very important public health measure and safe sex practice, over time it is not the main risk factor. Evidence indicates that anal sex is the risk factor,” Sher said.

Research follow-up

People using PrEP and PEP – drugs to prevent HIV infections – also have to wait four months from the last time they took the drug to donate blood.

Sher says it’s true that people taking PrEP and PEP have a lower risk of transmitting infections through sex and might have a low viral load, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to blood , especially for people who might receive half a liter of this.

Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, says evidence shows anal sex is a higher risk factor for transmitting diseases like HIV. (Canadian Blood Services/Canadian Press)

“We don’t know that it can’t be transmitted through a transfusion where there may be enough virus in the blood bag,” he said.

Sher says Canadian Blood Services will continue to work with companies that make tests for blood samples to look for diseases like HIV and hepatitis B.

“CBS will continue to assess the science and the evidence and will continue to modernize our policy as new evidence comes in,” Sher said.

‘It should have been done 10 years ago’: Prime Minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government welcomes the decision and “it’s been a long time coming.”

“The current approach was discriminatory and wrong. This is an important step in advancing both the safety of our blood supply, but also non-discriminatory blood practices,” Trudeau said Thursday.

Previously, the feds tried to block Kara’s legal challenge who argues that Health Canada discriminates against gay men by overseeing a ban that prevents men who have sex with men from donating blood.

When asked by reporters whether Health Canada played a complicit role in the discriminatory policy, Trudeau said scientific evidence was needed and did not exist.

“It should have been done 10 years ago, 15 years ago,” he said.

“But the research, the science, the investment to be able to ensure that our blood supply continues to be safe, data-based, research-based, has simply not been done by any previous government,” said the Prime Minister.

Trudeau said the federal government invested more than $5 million in research and funded a dozen studies to arrive at the result.