Monday, June 20, 2016

New Health Canada rules for gay men donating blood welcome, but still fundamentally flawed

Health Minister Jane Philpott (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
The long-standing rules barring men who have sex with men from donating blood in Canada are no longer valid.  They haven't been based on serious science for years.

The old rule enacted in the 1980s after the tainted blood scandal barred all men who have had sex with men even once since 1977 from donating blood for life.  I was well aware of this rule before I came out.  Thus I donated much blood before I became sexually active.

At first, it didn't seem to me like Health Canada or Canadian Blood Services were picking on just gay men as they used a similar sledgehammer approach to banning thousands of other Canadians for the smallest of reasons, like for a time those who had eaten certain meat products in the U.K.

But in recent years, it's become clear that science had less to do with the rule barring gay men.  Rather, the rule was kept in place simply to calm paranoid or prejudiced Canadians worried about the blood supply and maintain the "perception" that the blood supply was super-safe.   

Health Canada, wary to make the same mistakes of the past, stubbornly refused to budge on the issue until recently, when it changed the lifetime ban to a 5-year no sex ban.   Meaning gay men had to abstain from sex for five long years before becoming eligible to donate blood.  

Today, the rule has been changed again, bringing Canada in line with many other countries, lowering the sex threshold to just one year for gay men.  But for many, that's still going to disallow most gay men from donating, including those who are probably the least susceptible to getting sexually transmitted diseases or HIV: monogamous gay couples.

So there is more work to be done on this file.  If the Trudeau Liberals are intent on ensuring evidence-based policy decisions, it seems clear they should keep their promise to end the blanket ban completely and instead target actual behaviour.

Yes, the rates of HIV infection and other STDs are higher amongst sexually active gay men who aren't in monogamous relationships.  But the risks of similar infections amongst sexually active straight people (for whom, let's face it, condom use still remains less than common) have got to be higher than monogamous gay couples or gay men who always practise safe sex.   

It's time to stop targeting gay men unfairly like this.  Today's announcement is a step in the right direction.  Let's hope it's just the beginning of the end for this discriminatory policy.  

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