The lifetime ban on gay men donating blood is a contentious policy, one that has been rooted in science – but now Britain has joined several countries that let them do so. Canada is watching the decision with interest.
Britain’s move takes effect in November. It is not the first country to allow gay men to donate blood so long as they have not had sex with other gay men in the past 12 months. Other countries, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden, do likewise, though with varying deferral periods, ranging from six months to a decade. Science was invoked to support these policy changes. Most countries have lifetime bans, in the belief that gay men have a higher prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted and blood-borne diseases.
Britain’s Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood calculated that, with a lifetime ban, the theoretical risk of a unit of tainted blood slipping through was one in 4.41 million; with a one-year deferral period, the risk would be one in 4.38 million, which is almost identical.
Canadian Blood Services is expected to do a similar modelling exercise, as part of its review assessing the potential impact of such a change, though Health Canada has the ultimate say. Canada’s policy has been to turn away any man who has had sex with a man at any time since 1977, which may seem extreme to some; the only gay men who can donate must have been celibate for 34 years.
It now makes sense for Canada to re-evaluate its policy; science suggests a rethink, and the trend is moving toward letting gay men donate blood. But science alone may not be enough to bring change.
In Canada, where the tainted-blood scandal is part of our collective psyche – about 32,000 people were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C between 1980 and 1990 – the public’s confidence in the system is of great importance. It crumbled once and has been slow to recover; the hangover of doubt lingers.
That is why Canada must proceed with caution before making any change. The safety of the blood supply, based on the latest science, and public confidence in the system, are both essential.