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The Globe and Mail

U.K. lifts lifetime ban on gay men donating blood

The United Kingdom has become the latest country to lift the lifetime ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood, saying the policy does not appreciably improve the safety of the blood supply.

Canada, however, has no immediate plans to change its current policy, which is to turn away men who have had sex with men at any time since 1977.

"We're open to considering a change," Dr. Dana Devine, vice-president of medical, scientific and research affairs at Canadian Blood Services, said in an interview.

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But, first, she said, CBS, will conduct a thorough review of the potential impact of a change. (Health Canada would also have the final say.)

In London yesterday, the health ministers of England, Scotland and Wales announced that they will be relaxing the rules. (Northern Ireland will follow suit soon.)

Beginning in November, only men who have had sex with men during the past 12 months will be banned from donating blood.

The move came after the government's Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs issued a report saying a lifetime ban was no longer justifiable.

Deirdre Kelly, a pediatric liver specialist and member of the committee, said the "latest scientific evidence ... does not support the maintenance of a permanent ban."

Dr. Kelly said the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS has changed (there are now more heterosexuals infected) and the technology for testing for tainted blood is now extremely accurate.

U.K. experts 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, or virtually identical.

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Dr. Devine said Canada Blood Services will do similar modelling as part of its review. But she noted that most countries still have lifetime bans on blood donation by men who have sex with men.

"No blood system is going to make a change if they deem there is even a slight safety risk," she said.

Douglas Elliott, a lawyer for the Canadian AIDS Society and a key figure in Canada's tainted blood inquiry, said the decision by the U.K. was a "great step" forward and urged the CBS to follow suit.

"In Canada, our policies call for a 34-year period of celibacy for men who have with men if they want to donate blood. That's discriminatory, counterproductive and, frankly, just silly."

Just over half of the 65,000 Canadians infected with HIV/AIDS are men who have had sex with men, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

An estimated 5 per cent of gay/bisexual men are infected with HIV/AIDS, meaning that 95 per cent of men who have had sex with men are HIV-negative.

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Mr. Elliott said that while a 12-month deferral period is an improvement it's not ideal. "Ideally, we should have donor screening based on risk behaviours, not on risk group membership," he said.

Last year, an Ontario Superior Court judge ruled that banning gay/bisexual men from donating blood was not a violation of their Charter rights but a reasonable restriction based on safety concerns.

The ruling was the culmination of a civil suit in which Canadian Blood Services sued Kyle Freeman, a gay man who lied when giving blood. The court found him liable for $10,000 for negligent misrepresentation.

A new study, published Thursday in the British Medical Journal, found that 10.6 per cent of men who had sex with men had actually donated blood, including 2.5 per cent during the past 12 months.

The researchers found that the men did so principally because they considered themselves low-risk, because of confidentiality concerns and because they perceived the rules as unfair.

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