Editorial: Let them give blood

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Blood is thicker than water, though not as thick as discrimination. But now a movement is gaining momentum to end one long established source of prejudice -- the ban on gays from donating blood because of the risk of spreading HIV. The Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article this week arguing that the ban should be lifted, stating that screening methods are now capable of determining who should be allowed to donate, regardless of sexual orientation.

In 1998 Canadian Blood Services took over blood management for all of Canada except Quebec. The Canadian Red Cross had previously overseen blood services, but a commission had determined that blood contamination had occurred under the control of the Red Cross, and so Canadian Blood Services took over. Thousands of Canadians were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C before the change.

The problem with the Red Cross's methods, the commission decided, was that it failed to screen potentially harmful donors. To be safe CBS took extra precautions when they designed their screening program. Because HIV was more difficult to screen than it is now, and because transmission was most common among gays, CBS decided to ban all gays from giving blood. They argued that the risk was too high to justify the benefits of letting gays donate -- because they're such a small percentage of the population, banning the group wouldn't dramatically lower blood donation.

CBS isn't to blame for designing a system meant to best protect the safety of Canadians. Obviously, the system must be as efficient as possible to minimize costs -- testing all donated blood isn't an option. It's the poor manner in which CBS designed its system that is the issue. Now, with a major scientific body behind the change, considerations should be made.

The most pressing need is to change the terms that restrict potential donors. Promiscuous and unsafe people, regardless of their sex preferences, should be restricted from donating blood because the risk of transmitting disease is high. To ban all gays is equivalent to stating that they all consistently have multiple partners and don't wear condoms. This is wrong. Factually it's not the case: the amount of same sex couples wishing to marry is evidence of this. Even if there was evidence that gays engage in fewer long term relationships it would still be insufficient to justify a complete ban -- the ban adds to the stigma surrounding gays in society, which is wrong for any government organization to allow.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal argues for adjusting the policy so that gay men in long term, monogamous relationships are allowed to donate. If the relationship ended, a temporary ban--from one to five years--would be introduced. Other methods should also be considered. For instance, gays who regularly undergo testing should also be permitted to donate. Similarly, the Canadian AIDS Society recommends that men who have unprotected sex with more than one male within 12 months should be banned from donating for one year. Combined, enough solutions are available for CBS to allow gays to begin giving blood.

This paper recognizes that Canada isn't alone in their ban on gays donating blood. Many other countries, including the United States, have similar restrictions. A moderate solution is available that protects the safety of the population while allowing gays to fairly participate in an activity which other Canadians are allowed. True, the increase in donations is unlikely to alleviate Canada's blood shortage--there are other ways to address that problem. But while Canadian Blood Services only helps by distributing blood, it is hurting others in significant ways.




When politics mixes in with life-and-death health-care issues, the only choice is to place the medical above the political. Such an issue is the relaxation of a ban on gay men donating blood, proposed by researchers this week in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Mark Wainberg, director of McGill University\'s AIDS Centre at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, co-wrote the article with Dr. Norbert Gilmore. Wainberg calls the ban \"antiquated\" and \"discriminatory in regard to gay men.\" He also says the system is not well served because the ban \"results in far fewer blood donations.\"

Fewer blood donations, yes, but a blood supply that is safe. There is no point in upping blood donations if the risk of transfusing tainted blood goes up right along with that.

Nor are homosexuals\' hurt feelings a reason to compromise the safety of the blood supply. AIDS long ago ceased to be solely a disease among gay men. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, in 2008, the rate of new HIV infection was 20 per cent in heterosexual/non-endemic people and 16 per cent in heterosexual/endemic people, meaning those coming from a country where the disease is endemic among the general population. However, \"in terms of exposure category, men who have sex with men continued to comprise the greatest proportion (44 per cent) of new infections in 2008.\" Even scarier was that 19 per cent of infected men who had sex with other men \"were unaware of their HIV infection.\" Add to these statistics the worrisome fact the virus cannot be detected in the blood, although it can still be passed on, for several weeks after someone has been newly infected with it.

The Canadian Blood Services\' pamphlet, What You Must Know to Give Blood, advises people not to donate if, among other things, they have \"engaged in activities that put you at risk for getting HIV or hepatitis.\" These include injecting oneself with illegal drugs, taking money for drugs or sex since 1977, being a male who has had sex with another male since 1977, having sex with anyone who has done these things, and having \"been in jail for longer than 48 hours in the past 12 months.\" Due to the risk of variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, contracted from eating meat from BSEinfected cattle, blood and plasma aren\'t accepted from donors who have spent three or more months in the U.K. between 1980 and 1996. One does not hear those people complaining about their hurt feelings.

The horrific lessons of the Krever Inquiry into the infecting of more than 30,000 Canadians with hepatitis C and HIV through tainted blood have been learned well. The World Health Organization has declared Canada\'s blood system to be among the safest in the world. Risking those strict standards for the sake of being politically correct must never be an option.