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Canadian Blood Services now allows some gay, bisexual men to donate plasma in Calgary, London, Ont.

Canadian Blood Services is taking the first steps to allowing gay and bisexual men who have sex with men — which it calls the gbMSM community — to donate blood plasma, which is starting in two test cities: Calgary, Alta., and London, Ont.

It marks the first time the agency is opening donations to gay and bisexual men. For years, their policy of not allowing that demographic to donate has been criticized as discriminatory.

“We’re excited to welcome more members of the gbMSM community into our London and Calgary plasma donor centres,” Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, said in a statement. “This is an important step toward our goal of removing the waiting period for gbMSM donors and using sexual behaviour-based screening for all donors instead.”

In Calgary and London, men who have sex with men are now eligible to donate source plasma if they have not had a new sexual partner in the last three months, and if their partners have not had sex with another partner. 

Canadian Blood Services made the announcement on its website on Tuesday and on social media, which garnered reaction ranging from welcoming the move to saying the agency needs to do more.

Plasma is the straw-coloured liquid component left when blood cells are removed from whole blood. It contains nutrients and immune molecules like antibodies, and donations can be done more frequently than blood donations. 

Men who have had sexual contact with another man in the last three months are still not eligible to donate blood.

The agency says it hopes to apply to Health Canada by the end of 2021 to have that criteria removed, moving away from a blanket ban to a screening process instead that asks about sexual behaviour, as it does for other donors. 

Demand for plasma surging

“Men are able to donate source plasma every week at our London and Calgary donor centres,” Canadian Blood Services said in a statement. “Plasma donated by gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men in London and Calgary will be made into plasma protein products when the donor comes in at least 60 days later with a plasma donation that tests negative for infectious diseases. 

“Plasma protein products are specialized medicines that are made from plasma to treat a variety of rare, life-threatening, chronic and genetic conditions. The 60-day return donation and testing is a requirement from our regulator Health Canada.”

Demand for plasma products is surging in Canada and around the world. It is used in a variety of treatments for rare, life-threatening, chronic and genetic conditions.

For years, Canadian Blood Services has come under fire for not allowing men who have sex with men to donate blood, a practice many call homophobic. The agency did not say when it would expand the current plasma donation ability to other centres beyond Calgary and London.

“We understand that being turned away from donating can leave any donor with a sense of frustration and disappointment,” the agency said. “We recognize that eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men is a particularly sensitive issue affecting many who have experienced longstanding marginalization and stigma.

“We also recognize that the slow pace of changes to donor criteria that still exclude many gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men has been painful and frustrating for many, and we are working to create a more inclusive system.”

Training staff part of policy change

Canadian Blood Services says University of Ottawa-led research conducted at arm’s length from the agency contributed to the development of the new criteria and donor screening processes for the gbMSM community. 

Part of introducing the new policy in London and Calgary involved training front-line staff on how to communicate with prospective donors, and “understand the science behind the new policy,” Canadian Blood Services says on its website.

It cites data collected by the Public Health Agency of Canada indicating the incidence of HIV and hepatitis C is higher in Canada among men who have sex with men compared to the rest of the population.

“The current criteria are based on a broad statistical picture of risk, but of course not all individuals within a group are the same,” Dr. Graham Sher, CEO of Canadian Blood Services, is quoted on the website as saying. “This is part of the reason we are working toward a new way of screening donors that looks at the risks of specific sexual behaviours.”

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