MONTREAL - There are no immediate plans to further relax restrictions on gay and bisexual blood donors despite the fact officials are testing the waters on the idea, says the agency responsible for Canada's blood supply.
Canadian Blood Services lifted its lifetime donation ban on men who have sex with men in 2013, allowing those who had been abstinent for five years to donate.
Now, a new online survey, conducted by the polling firm Ipsos Reid on behalf of the agency, asks whether Canadians would be in favour of cutting the deferral period down to one year.
Dr. Mindy Goldman of Canadian Blood Services said the survey is an attempt to gather views about changes that could potentially be made in the next few years.
"The current five-year deferral was implemented in July 2013, and is a first step to incremental change for this policy," Goldman, medical director of donor and clinical services, said in an email.
"It will require at least two to three years to assess the impact of this change, so we do not have enough information yet to determine what the next change will be."
The survey comes at a time when Canada's blood supply is "critically low." Canadian Blood Services said last month its national inventory hasn't been this depleted since 2008, and appealed to all eligible donors to make a donation immediately.
Goldman said the current blood shortage wasn't a factor in the decision to launch the poll, which was planned at the beginning of the summer.
Among the questions in the multiple-choice survey, released Sept. 18: "How much do you support or oppose Canadian Blood Services further changing its policy regarding men who have had sex with another man within a one-year time frame?"
Another asks: "Do you think this further policy change would be a step in the right direction or wrong direction?"
Other countries, like Britain and Australia, have already implemented a one-year deferral period, and South Africa has a deferral period of six months, while the United States still retains its lifetime ban.
Critics have argued donation screening should look at individual behaviour rather than sexual orientation. For example, HIV-negative gay men in long-term monogamous relationships should be eligible to donate blood.
Helen Kennedy, executive director of the gender advocacy group Egale, said the policy should be "based on science as opposed to based on a stereotype."
"We want it reduced, and we want the questions based more on science and individual behaviour," she said in an interview.
The Young Liberals of Canada have made the ban a key issue and started an online petition against it.
"We support a framework based on behaviour-based screening on risks, not based on sexual orientation," said Justin Kaiser, president of the Young Liberals.
The federal New Democrats have also said a five-year deferral discriminates against gay men.
Modifications to Canada's blood policy would need to be approved by Health Canada, which said in a statement it would "review any proposal" presented by Canadian Blood Services.
The lifetime ban against donations by gay men was implemented in the mid-1980s by the Red Cross, which was responsible for the blood supply system at the time. The policy was introduced after it was realized AIDS, then untreatable, could be contracted through blood transfusions.
Hundreds of Canadians were infected with HIV and-or hepatitis C in the era before tests to screen out contaminated blood were developed and adopted by the Red Cross. The Krever Inquiry later came up with recommendations for how to make the blood supply safer, one of which was to operate the blood service in an "open and accessible manner," Goldman said.
Goldman said the current survey is part of an attempt by Canadian Blood Services to satisfy that recommendation.
"While our policies are rooted in scientific evidence and Canadian statistics, it is important for Canadian Blood Services to operate in an open and transparent manner to maintain the trust of all Canadians we serve today and in the future," she said.
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