Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

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[BRIEF NOTE] What's wrong with gay blood?

Last Friday, zarq had a post up last Friday mentioning that gay and bisexual men in the United States can't donate blood. This is the case in Canada as well. The prohibition on blood donations was enacted in the mid-1980s at the very beginning of Canada's own tainted blood scandal. The HIV/AIDS epidemic began in Canada several years later than it did in the United States, and so too did efforts to protect the Canadian blood supply against contamination. Even after a test for the HIV virus became available, the Canadian Red Cross--then the agency responsible for maintaining Canada's blood supply--inexplicably delayed implementation. The result? Three thousand dead.

Canada's tainted blood scandal was only one of many scandals worldwide, with the French and Japanese scandals ranking alongside the Canadian in their sheer sordidness. Extensive investigations were made, charges laid, fines imposed on the Canadian Red Cross and compensation given to the victims, the Red Cross forced to give up its control of Canada's blood supply to Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec, and just this Wednesday the Red Cross formally apologized to the victims. Another consequence of the blood supply crisis of the early 1980s was the lifetime ban imposed on receiving blood donations from men who have engaged in any gay sex since 1977.

Among gay and bi men in Canada, this blanket ban has been a controversial issue (1, 2). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't understand the root sentiment, for blood is a potent cultural icon. Relationships of blood are said to define families; traditional nationalist movements have emphasized the nation's homogeneity of blood; Christian communion relates directly . It does hurt to be excluded from contributing to this real blood community. If you belong to a stigmatized and unpopular minority, it doesn't take much to believe that you're also being excluded from the metaphorical community of blood.

According to the final report (PDF format) of the Ontario Men's Survey, 12.7% of gay and bisexual men in Toronto are HIV positive. Assuming that the epidemiological data for 2000 cited by the United Nations, available at AEGIS' Canada page, are correct and that the data are comparable, this means that the average gay or bisexual man living in Toronto is forty-two times as likely to be HIV positive as the average Canadian. Levels of HIV seropositivity in Ontario drop to single-digit percentages outside of Toronto--in Ottawa, southern Ontario, northern Ontario--but even these rates are very high by global standards. It is true that improved HIV tests can detect the virus in a person's bloodstream much more quickly after infection than was once the case, but there is still a window between the time of infection and the time when HIV is detectable, estimated in 2004 at 11 days for a unit of donated blood. Another relevant finding of the Ontario Men's Survey is that one-quarter of HIV positive gay and bisexual men didn't know their serostatus. When you subject the idea of lifting the ban to a cost-benefit analysis, even if gay and bisexual male donors are entirely responsible the benefit (a slightly expanded pool of blood suppliers) doesn't come close to compensating for the cost (a considerably elevated number of HIV positive donors, and of blood recipients receiving HIV-infected blood).

Alas, personal experience has taught me that responsibility isn't as common as it should be. I wouldn't have been celibate for the past month, since my breakup, had the last two gentlemen who were interested in me and who I was interested in not made bareback sex a requirement. I'm not sure who was the more disturbing, he who insisted on barebacking, or he who didn't think it worth mentioning. I'd like to believe that this was a fluke and that a significant chunk of the population hasn't forgotten about safer sex education; but then, ACT Toronto does report that the number of HIV-infected gay and bi men in the Toronto area is growing by 2% a year. As Jason Kuznicki observed, it's a bit much to expect members of a persecuted minority group to not behave self-destructively. For that matter, as the massive heterosexual HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa suggests, humans behaving like humans is all that it takes to cause a catastrophe. I just find it terribly depressing that Larry Kramer might be right. Again. Trust is a commodity that should be in short supply right about now.

What's my opinion about opening up Canada's blood system to donations by gay and bi men? I feel fear and dread. Give me the chance to choose between a unit of straight blood and a unit of gay blood and I'll pick the straight blood 99 times out of a hundred.
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