Health Canada has agreed to reduce the waiting period for giving blood, to three months from one year, for men who have sex with men.
Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced on Wednesday that the regulator has approved requests from Canadian Blood Services (CBS) and its counterpart, Héma-Québec, to cut the deferral time for this group for the second time in three years.
The waiting period was reduced to 12 months from five years in 2016.
The latest change, which takes effect June 3, was greeted by opponents of the one-year rule as a step in the right direction that would nevertheless continue to bar most gay men from donating blood.
“We’re very happy to see that the blood ban has gone down to three months, but we still are going to be advocating that it [should not matter] if you’re gay, straight or transgender,” said Gary Lacasse, executive director of the Canadian AIDS Society.
“It should be based on behaviour. It’s extremely stigmatizing to be excluded from giving blood when the risk levels are not that different from any other population.”
CBS, the national blood authority established in 1998 the wake of the tainted-blood tragedy, is open to eliminating the waiting period for men who have sex with men if the organization’s continuing research finds it’s safe to do so.
“We do feel it’s an incremental step,” Mindy Goldman, CBS’s medical director of donor and clinical services, said of the move to a three-month deferral period. “We would ideally like to get away from a time-based deferral … we would like to be able to be more nuanced, to get at a safe subset of men who have sex with men who would be allowed to donate.”
One reason for CBS’s lingering hesitation is that its blood-safety tests are not foolproof. If a donor unwittingly acquires HIV or hepatitis B or C shortly before giving blood, there is a chance the viruses could elude CBS’s testing, Dr. Goldman said.
All men who have sex with men have been lumped into a high-risk category, she added, because such men still account for more than half of all new HIV cases in Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC.)
PHAC concluded that of an estimated 2,165 new cases of HIV in Canada in 2016, 52 per cent were among men who have sex with other men.
But other research does not necessarily find that these men are likelier to engage in potentially perilous sexual practices, said Dustin Costescu, a sexual-health specialist in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at McMaster University.
"It’s not conclusive that men who have sex with other men are inherently higher risk in their behaviour,” Dr. Costescu said. “It may just be that their risk is different based on what they’re doing, and the [incidence] of HIV in that population.”
Dr. Goldman said one of the goal’s of CBS’s research is to learn more about low-risk men who have sex with men, such as those in long-term monogamous relationships, who aren’t always the subject of as much study.
Ms. Petitpas Taylor’s announcement Wednesday came four years after her Liberal Party promised in the 2015 election campaign to eliminate what it called a “discriminatory" five-year abstention rule that, in practice, barred most gay men from donating blood.