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Ban on gay men’s blood misguided: potential donors should be screened on basis of behaviour, not orientation

By in Opinions
According to Canadian Blood Services’ current policy, this arm could not belong to a sexually active homosexual male.
In the mid-1980s at the height of the AIDS scare, nations around the world banned blood donations from gay men. At the time, this made sense: people didn’t know much about how HIV/AIDS spread or what could be done to stop it. One of the things they knew for certain was that gay men — along with prostitutes and intravenous drug users — were contracting the virus at much higher rates than the general population.

Almost 30 years later, though, we live in a very different world. We now know how the virus spreads and how to safeguard against infection. Testing has been refined such that certain types of tests, namely Nucleic Acid Tests, can detect HIV within two to three weeks. There is no need for the kind of blanket donor ban that focuses on a person’s innate characteristics, like sexuality, rather than how safe his or her behaviours are.

Simply put, people’s sexual orientations have no bearing on whether or not they are likely to have HIV.

What puts gay men at higher risk of HIV infection is that anal sex is significantly more likely to lead to the spread of infection from one partner to the other. However, condom use is about 79 per cent effective in preventing HIV infection during anal sex, and medication can reduce the likelihood of transmission by as much as 99.9 per cent.

With figures like this, it becomes clear that the focus should be on excluding donors who do not practice safe sex rather than on all gay men.

Canadian Blood Services still has a ban in place on donations from any man who has had sex with another man since 1977; this is, for all intents and purposes, a lifetime ban on gay men giving blood. It is homophobic and misplaced. While it is true that homosexual men make up the largest portion of HIV-infected Canadians, it is not true that gay men are inherently more likely to have the virus.

Bowing to pressure from gay rights groups, Blood Services has considered changing this policy: allowing men to donate if they have not had sex with another man in the past five to 10 years. This is effectively the same as a lifetime ban for gay men, but disguises itself as a more progressive policy. It should be scrapped in favour of a rule that actually targets the behaviours that put people at risk of HIV infection.

It is well known that sharing needles for drug injection and engaging in unprotected sex are the two most common ways of passing the HIV/AIDS virus on. Organizations like Blood Services rightly screen for people who have used intravenous drugs or had unprotected sex in the past year, and excludes them from donating.

But the key difference here is that these people are not banned forever. Someone who has neither had unprotected sex nor used needle drugs in the last year is free to donate blood, because Blood Services assumes — rightly — that any infections they have will be detected by the rigorous screening process every single donation is subjected to.

Meanwhile, all gay men are assumed to be as risky to the community as people who share needles and have unprotected sex. Or, to be more precise, all gay men who are sexually active. To request that someone forgo sex, an integral aspect of a healthy adult life, in order to donate sorely-needed blood is ludicrous and backward, and Canadians should hold their institutions to a higher standard.

Photo: European Parliament/Flickr

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