To the editor:
Recently, you may have heard about Canadian Blood Services’ policy regarding the deferral of men who have had sex with other men (MSM) even once since 1977 being debated in the media and at your university. CBS understands that this is a complex and sensitive issue and we would like to provide you with some information to better understand this safety policy.
Why do we have the MSM deferral policy if we test all donated blood? Because our state-of-the-art test for HIV has a limitation. In the early stages of infection, known as the “window period,” the virus is undetectable.
What this means is that without a screening process, there is the potential for an infected unit to get through the system and be transfused into a patient. And recently released reports from the Public Health Agency of Canada indicate that MSM continues to account for the highest rate of HIV infection.
The MSM policy, as with most of our policies, renders anyone whose blood could pose an increased risk to patients ineligible to donate — regardless of their sexual orientation.
In fact, there are many well-intended individuals who are ineligible to donate blood for many different reasons, such as persons who have lived in the United Kingdom during a specified time frame, or those who were born or have lived in Africa since 1977 or individuals with a history of malaria to name a few. No matter what action we take, or what policy is in place, the safety of patients is the overriding principle.
Having said this, CBS continually reviews its policies to ensure they remain in the best interest of patients. As a result of a recent review of this policy, we have begun an active research agenda to inform our decision-making on this issue.
Is there a better way to screen for risk of HIV? It is quite possible there is, but we won’t know that until we complete the research. As we conduct this research we will continue to work with groups such as the Canadian Federation of Students and Egale Canada, as well as keeping the public informed on our progress.
Ultimately, it is not up to us to make a final decision, as that responsibility lies with our regulator, Health Canada.
In closing, I would like to address the issue of banning or interfering with campus clinics. Maintaining an adequate supply is an ongoing challenge for us because on average, every minute of every day someone in Canada needs blood or blood products.
Students and faculty are among some of our most dedicated donors, and in fact campus clinics contribute approximately 40,000 units of blood that help a potential 120,000 patients every year.
No matter what your point of view is regarding the MSM policy, while we undertake the research to inform our decision making on this issue, please remember that patients rely on your support to save and improve their lives.
Thank you for taking the time to carefully consider patient needs in making your decision to be a blood donor!
Canadian Blood Services
Chief Operating Officer