WATCH ABOVE: Even though gay men can donate organs, they are not eligible to donate tissues. Health Canada says it’s an issue related to HIV, but not everyone in the medical community agrees. Global’s Heather Yourex reports.
CALGARY – When Calgary columnist Mike Morrison went to renew his driver’s licence last week, he was asked to join Alberta’s new organ and tissue donor registry. He said it was an easy decision.
“I said yes right away, and signed up to donate because it seemed like such an easy and important thing to do,” said Morrison.
Morrison soon learned he faced restrictions when it came to being a donor. While he can donate organs like his heart, lung or kidney, he isn’t able to donate tissues like his corneas, heart valves or bones as a gay man.
Alberta Health Services says the policy is in line with national standards as outlined by organizations like the American Association of Tissue Banks, Eye Banking Association of America and Health Canada.
Health Canada says the policy is about safety. In a statement to Global News, the agency wrote: “Gay men are not prohibited from donating tissues in Canada and donor screening criteria is not based on sexual orientation, but rather on health and safety considerations.
“Given that the highest prevalence of HIV is associated with men who have had sex with another man (MSM), donor screening questions soliciting risk behaviour for MSM, in the preceding five years, is a precautionary measure aimed at protecting recipients.”
Policies banning gay men from donating blood and tissues were introduced around the world beginning in the mid 1980s, but the director of McGill University’s AIDS Centre says a lot has changed since then.
“I don’t think there is a need based on science to exclude gay men as donors of blood or tissues in terms of protecting potential recipients from HIV,” said Dr. Mark Wainberg. “I think the jury is in on this, (screening) tests now work extremely well.”
Wainberg also says it’s wrong to say that a person has an increased risk of HIV infection just because he is gay.
“The policy we have in place in Canada really exerts discrimination against all gay men, regardless of whether they’re in a lifetime faithful monogamous relationship with someone or whether they’re relatively promiscuous and at higher risk.”
Calgary’s HIV Community Link also has concerns with the Health Canada policy.
“We clearly identify this as an issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation,” said Andrea Carter, team leader of prevention and engagement with the group.
“For several years now in Alberta, the largest proportion of new HIV diagnoses have fallen under heterosexual risk categories. Policy decisions need to be based on evidence, not an ideological perspective based on misinformation.”
An Alberta Health website says there are over 4,500 Canadians waiting for a life-saving transplant, and even more people are waiting for tissue transplants to improve their quality of life.
In 2013, Canadian Blood Services and Health Canada relaxed rules around blood and tissue donation for gay men. A lifetime ban was reduced to a five-year waiting period following a man’s last sexual contact with another man.