Gay men can only donate blood after 3 months of abstinence.
A social media ad calling for plasma donors has garnered hundreds of "likes" and "shares." But it has also sparked controversy with over a dozen commenters accusing Héma-Québec of homophobic practices that exclude gay men.
"Quebec needs plasma donors," the sponsored post says. The caption reads: "Plasma donation changes the lives of thousands of Quebecers. Plan your visit to a donation centre near you."
Three months of abstinence
Beneath the non-profit organization's post are more than 400 comments. Some ask questions about the difference between plasma and blood (plasma is the liquid portion of blood), while others ask if vaccinated folks can give blood (yes, they can).
Then there are comments like this: "I would but I'm gay and you won't let me," "Then stop your prejudice of gay people" and "I'll think about it when they stop being homophobic entirely."
According to Héma-Québec, "a man whose last sexual contact with a man was 3 or more months ago can give plasma."
While this does not rule out gay donors, the three-month restriction does not apply to lesbians, men who have sex with women or women who have sex with men.
"I would totally donate blood, but I am a healthy gay man and you don't want me because of who I sleep with (even though I have been with the same partner for 21 years). Good luck with your antiquated rules, in an age where you can screen blood for HIV and other pathogens very very quickly. So there you go, do without, it's absolutely no loss on me. So now, stop advertising on my feed," wrote a Facebook user. He asked to be identified as "a member of Montreal's gay community" to protect his privacy.
"It's honestly ridiculous that they even still have this restriction. If women can sleep with men and donate no problem, then there is absolutely no reason why men who sleep with men (or, in your case, one man) should be denied. All of the donations are tested anyway," Gatineau resident Jami Tatlock replied.
On its website, Héma-Québec responds to the question, "Why must a homosexual couple in a stable relationship wait 3 months without having sex?" in order to donate blood.
"Sex can contribute to the propagation of viruses that may be transmitted to other individuals through blood transfusions. Héma-Québec uses a range of very rigorous screening tests. Despite the high performance of these tests, the risk of an infected blood donation going undetected, however slight, is not zero because of the sensitivity limitations of the tests," it says.
"For this reason, despite the use of screening tests, we exclude donors at high risk of infections that might be transmitted through blood."
Héma-Québec describes the three-month window as a period of risk or a "silent period" when people could be asymptomatic and test negative, despite being infected with HIV or Hepatitis. The three-month restriction also applies to people who have gotten piercings or tattoos.
Laurent Paul Ménard, Héma-Québec's media relations director, told MTL Blog the organization is working to make blood donation more inclusive as "scientific evidence becomes available and blood product safety is shown."
Ménard pointed out that, since 2013, Héma-Québec has submitted multiple requests asking Health Canada — which must approve all changes to donor eligibility criteria — to reduce the qualification criteria for men who have sex with men.
Between 1992 and 2013, a man who had sex with another man — even once — could never donate blood. In 2013, a man had to wait five years after having sex with another man to donate. In 2016, the deferral period was reduced to one year. And, in 2019, one year was reduced to three months.
A new behaviour-based approach
Ménard said Héma-Québec is planning to submit to Health Canada again to ask for a new approach that takes behaviour into account, based on a model recently adopted in the U.K.
Héma-Québec, he said, will ask Health Canada to allow some sexually active men who have one same-sex partner to donate without any restrictions.
In the meantime, some potential donors are left torn between doing good and standing up for what they believe is right.
"I am torn now between donating myself," Tatlock told MTL Blog. "I want to help people, but I also kind of want to hold off until they change their homophobic policies as a kind of protest."
According to Ménard, Héma-Québec will submit the request to Health Canada by the end of this year.