Russia Reverses Gay Blood Ban; Canada Still Lags

May 28th, 2008

A bloody goodbye

The Russian Health Ministry announced this week that it has ended its ban on gay blood donors.

This news came as somewhat of a surprise, as homophobia remains a large problem in Russia. Moscow’s first gay rights parade, for example, was met with violent protesters, condemned by the mayor, and banned by the courts. Authorities did nothing to stop violence against the marchers, many of whom where shoved, punched and kicked. This was in 2006.

Still, Russia has recognized what Canada fails to acknowledge: That allowing gay donors does not increase the risk of contaminants in the blood supply. Just last year, the American Red Cross called gay blood donor bans “medically and scientifically unwarranted,” and statistics support them.

In Canada, the fastest growing HIV demographic is young, heterosexual women, which makes up 25% of all HIV infections in the country. More worrying, however, are the statistics from the aboriginal community. In 2005, 22.4% of Canada’s HIV infections were among aboriginals, of which 53% were injection drug users, and 38.9% were women. More locally, a Manitoba study released in March showed that only 18% of HIV transmissions in the province were between gay men, with heterosexual intercourse transmissions climbing to a staggering 32%. The rest of the infections were caused by a mixture of injection drug users, birth transmission, travel, and other causes.

To suggest that young women and aboriginals should be banned from donating, though, would be irresponsible. Recent advances in HIV screening can identify—in only 60 seconds—if a person is infected with HIV with 99.96% accuracy. This is an important change, as when the blood ban was first enacted in Canada there was no effective screening at all.

Still, despite medical evidence and a nine-year low in Canadian Blood Service’s reserves, Health Canada is actually regressing. In January, Health Canada officially banned gays from donating organs, even to dying patients, despite a dangerous and time-sensitive shortage. Many doctors have refused to comply.

This puts Canada in a very strange situation. If medicine and statistics aren’t supporting the gay blood ban, then who is?

One particularly unsurprising group of supporters is lobbyists. Having Health Canada and Canadian Blood Services implement unfair policies toward gays gives an air of legitimacy to homophobia, and the anti-gay lobby jumps on the opportunity. Jim Enos of Hamilton’s Family Action Council has already suggested that since gay blood donors are permanently deferred, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board should cut its anti-homophobia and bullying policies protecting gay students.

Clearly something is awry, and it’s about time that Canada followed Russia’s lead in putting real medical and statistical data first. Canada is desperate for blood donors and classifying blood based on risky practices instead of risky people would increase both the safety and quantity of blood.