Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gay men eligible to donate blood

Change applauded as a positive start

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New rules that will let men who have sex with men donate blood under certain provisions, are being called a positive step forward.

New rules came into effect Monday. They allow men to donate blood as long as they haven't had sex with another man in the last five years. The previous rules, which were established in the 1980s, set that period of time as indefinite, meaning those men couldn't donate.

Health Canada approved the changes at the request of Canadian Blood Services.

Mindy Goldman, executive medical director at Canadian Blood Services, said the original rules were created around the time when HIV started spreading in North America.

CBS requested the change because modern medical procedures make screening blood for conditions such as HIV easier, she said.

"There's been tremendous progress in detection of HIV in blood since then, and tremendous progress in our processes," Goldman said.

One of the voices protesting the original policy has been the Canadian Federation of Students, which has opposed the policy since the 1990s.

Brent Farrington, internal co-ordinator for the federation, said they were happy to see the new policy.

"We see it as a positive step forward," Farrington said.

But more needs to be done, Farrington said.

The problem with the current policy is it still singles out men who had sex with men, regardless of how often they had sex or how they did it.

"What that does, it essentially removes an entire group from donating to the blood supply ... based on a stereotype," he said.

Farrington said the federation wants a behaviour-based policy that identifies risky behaviours, such as having multiple sexual partners in a short period of time.

"Under the current system as it exists, two men who have been in a monogamous relationship for 45 years can't give blood, whereas a heterosexual man who has engaged with multiple sexual partners in the last three months is more than welcome to donate to the system," Farrington said.

Farrington pointed to countries such as Portugal and Italy, both of which have behaviour-based policies, he said.

Goldman said a behaviour-based approach is not useful because it creates questions that could eliminate too many potential donors.

"We could not implement those types of questions without having massive donor loss," she said.

Still, she didn't go as far as saying such a program couldn't exist in the future.

"We feel like this is the first step. This is the first change in the policy since it was introduced in the 1980s," she said.

"It could be that the next step would be a shorter deferral period, such as a one-year deferral. We don't see this as our final destination," she said.

Robert Cushman of Health Canada said the government could approve more changes in a few years after monitoring the change just implemented.

"After a few years they could come forward with additional changes as they judge necessary," Cushman said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2013 A7

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