Friday, January 11, 2008

How not to introduce a new policy: Health Canada's "new" organ donation rules for gay men

The folks at Health Canada really bungled this one. Changes were quietly made last month to formalize long-standing rules with regard to screening out "high-risk" donors from the organ donation pool in Canada.

When the media began airing or writing stories on "the changes" this week, many transplant organizations across Canada said they hadn't heard of them. The new rules made it clear that sexually active gay men, in addition to being banned for life from donating blood, would also be banned after death from donating their organs (as long as they had had sex within five years of their "donation.") Queer community organizations were justifiably furious with this latest attack on our community's collective reputation.

A new Facebook group was formed to protest the "changes."

The Official Opposition in Ottawa got in on the attack, criticizing the Harper government for making changes in secret (a very justified criticism, in truth.)

Whoever handles communications at Health Canada should probably be looking for new work. These rules were portrayed at the beginning of the week as new, when in fact the rules simply formalized what had become standard practise. The new rules outlined an all-important loophole which allowed "high-risk" groups including gay men to still donate as long as the recipient knew the risks and agreed to take the possibly life-saving organ. As of December 2007, nothing really had changed at all.

No one at Health Canada agreed to speak with reporters to clarify this when stories first started to appear. Instead, this was left up to dismayed stakeholders like the Trillium Gift of Life Network.

The medical director for Canada's largest multi-organ transplant program, Dr. Gary Levy, confused matters when he first criticized the new rules as unfair, only to print this column in today's Globe & Mail which partially clarified the situation.

The new five-year rule is simply dumb. There is no way to effectively enforce it. Furthermore, why would doctors waste their time finding out the sexual history of a dead gay man when the loophole which allows them to use his organs exists? Health Canada should simply have instituted a lifetime ban like Canada Blood Services, with the loophole intact. Now both the five-year rule and the lifetime ban have been exposed as arbitrary and unscientific.

I don't quibble with long-standing rules that bar sexually active gay men from donating blood. It is sadly true that gay men remain one of the highest groups for new HIV infection in Canada. It's true that the screening rules used by Canada Blood Services are heavy-handed and shut out many, many Canadians who are, in fact, not real risks. But the agency seems to be applying its overly stringent standards across the board, not just at gay men. It seems the blood-collecting agency is taking no chances, unlike the Red Cross in the past.

When I first heard this week that gay men would be "banned" from donating organs, I immediately tore up my organ donor card in frustration. I'm sure thousands of gay men across the country did the same. How tragic when there has been, in fact, no change to the rules governing organ donations at all. I'll have to get another organ donor card, but I'm not sure when and where I'll do this.

This is the end result of a truly bungled media communications job. Heads should roll at Health Canada and Tory Health Minister Tony Clement should be held to account for this fiasco.

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