Britain lifts ban on gay blood donors - will Canada follow?
Published Thursday, September 8, 2011 3:11PM EDT
LONDON - British authorities opened the door Thursday to some gay men being able to give blood, a move Canada's two blood collection agencies hope to follow.
Britain joined South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other countries in doing away with the now controversial lifetime ban on blood donations from gay men.
Starting in November, gay men in Britain who haven't had sex with other gay men for at least 12 months will be eligible to give blood.
Toronto lawyer Adrian Lomaga, who has been fighting for this type of policy change in Canada, welcomed the news.
"Given the research I've seen to date, I think a 12-month deferral period is reasonable. I'm comfortable with that as being a deferral period in Canada," said Lomaga, who filed a lawsuit against Quebec's blood agency, Hema-Quebec, when he was a student at McGill University.
"I don't think it would increase in any significant way the risk to the blood recipients in Canada."
Lomaga's case was to go to court in April of this year. But he withdrew it after his legal team was told by lawyers for Health Canada that the Canadian policy was under review and might be changed within the year.
Health Canada was approached for comment Thursday. A response was still pending.
However, spokespeople for both Hema-Quebec and Canadian Blood Services -- which operates the blood donation system in the rest of Canada -- acknowledged that it's time for a change.
"Our hope is that we move away from a permanent ban to a timed deferral," said Dana Devine, vice-president for medical scientific and research services for Canadian Blood Services.
"I can't tell you now what the number will end up being. But to change the paradigm from infinity -- from forever -- to something which has a beginning and an end is really what we're trying to do."
Marc Germain, Devine's counterpart at Hema-Quebec, said his agency applied to the Canadian Standards Agency in 2009 to drop the lifetime ban in favour of a deferral.
The standards agency would have to study and recommend a change to Health Canada, which has the final say on the matter. The standards agency has started work on the file.
Initially Hema-Quebec suggested a 12-month deferral, but after experiencing push-back from some government experts and from groups representing people who need frequent blood transfusions, it is now suggesting a five-year deferral.
"In our case, we're absolutely certain that going from a lifetime deferral to a five-year deferral or even a one-year deferral -- because that's what we were promoting a couple of years ago -- would absolutely make no difference in terms of the risk of HIV (transmission)," Germain said in an interview from Montreal.
But the issue isn't just about scientific assessment of risk, he said. The people who rely on the blood system need to feel confident that any change wouldn't put them in harm's way.
The shadow of Canada's tainted blood scandal looms over these discussions. In the 1970s and 1980s, before HIV-AIDs emerged and then before the Red Cross started testing of donated blood for the virus, hundreds of Canadians were infected with HIV and-or hepatitis C.
In the aftermath of the affair, the Red Cross was stripped of responsibility for Canada's blood supply; Canadian Blood Services and Hema-Quebec were set up to take over the task.
"Our Canadian psyche is marred by the tainted blood scandal and we carry that with us in how we look at this issue," Devine said.
"And it's a very important thing to make sure that we keep top of mind. So from our perspective, the blood safety thing really is Job 1."
Neither Germain nor Devine could predict whether or when a change to the Canadian policies would come, but Germain said the movement in Britain gives him hope more countries will gain the confidence to make this type of change.