When Sarah Stallan found out her healthy, hockey-playing friends weren’t blood donors, she was furious — with Canadian Blood Services.
Despite lifting its lifelong ban last year, the blood bank still prohibits gay and bisexual men who have had sex in the last five years from donating. But thanks to the work of a University of Toronto PhD student, Canada’s first “ally donor” clinic where gay and bisexual men can “donate” a pint of someone else’s blood opened Friday.
“I generally disagreed with the CBS’s policies specifically related to this situation,” said Stallan, 31, explaining why Friday was her first time ever in the donor’s chair.
Holding her hand was Jordan Becker, a 26-year-old friend who heard about the ally donor clinic at 67 College St. in Toronto through his gay men’s hockey league.
“I told Sarah about it [via email], and I think she replied in like a minute,” Becker said.
The one-day pilot clinic is the brainchild of Stephen McCarthy, an HIV-AIDS researcher and longtime blood bank volunteer whose own sex life bars him from donating.
Five years ago, McCarthy was on the phone making an appointment to give blood when the question of sexual preference came up. He was crushed.
“My dad was ready to drive me and I was too shy to tell him that I can’t,” McCarthy said. “I’d recently come out to my dad and I didn’t know how to tell him, ‘Dad, I can’t donate blood.’”
The elder McCarthy said he doesn’t recall the conversation precisely, but Stephen remembers his dad stepping up in a big way. “His first reaction was, ‘Don’t worry, Stephen. I’ll donate for you.’ And that meant a lot to me.”
The project brought in 35 ally donors by appointment and several more unannounced walk-ins. Similar projects will open in London and Vancouver as part of those cities’ Pride celebrations later this summer.
Giving blood is already a selfless act. But abstaining from sex for five years to lend a pint to a stranger? Don Lapierre, manager of stakeholder relations at the blood bank’s Ottawa headquarters, knows it’s a big ask, one that still amounts to a permanent ban for most gay men.
Himself openly gay, Lapierre said the ban is not rooted in stigma, but in science and economics.
“There’s obviously a safe subset within the MSM [men who have sex with men] category that should be able to donate blood, but we don’t have the systems and measures in place to allow that,” Lapierre said.
Because HIV and hepatitis — infections which gay and bisexual men are considered by Health Canada to be at increased risk of contracting — can lay dormant in a carrier’s blood for weeks, the blood service lacks the resources to pre-screen donors and conduct the necessary follow-up.
At a cost of $400 per pint, the blood bank screens all donations for blood-born pathogens like HIV and hepatitis, and would rather not waste precious resources collecting and storing tainted blood in the first place.
So, as always, the blood bank in this case has to rely on the kindness and honesty of strangers.
“You could have a two-tiered donation system where you’d have to come back again for second tests but that’d be very expensive,” Lapierre said. “That would be doubling the cost per unit for every blood donation collected.”
As early as next year, the blood bank will be eligible to apply to Health Canada to reduce the five-year ban, provided it gives evidence showing a shorter ban — such as Australia’s one-year prohibition — is as effective at protecting the blood supply.
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