In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Canada was rocked with its worst public health disaster ever: the tainted blood scandal. After being infused with infected blood product, one thousand Canadian Red Cross patients contracted HIV and twenty thousand more were infected with hepatitis C. Even worse, a federal health employee claimed that it was known by the early 1980s that contaminated blood existed within the system.
In the years that followed, the feds instituted a compensation program for infected patients, and the Red Cross was ordered by the Supreme Court to pay seventy-nine million dollars in settlements. The scandal caused the Red Cross (now succeeded by Canadian Blood Services) to establish one of its most controversial policies: any man who had any type of sexual contact—even once—with another man since 1977 was barred from donating blood products.
This policy is not unique to Canadian Blood Services; it’s ubiquitous in blood agencies around the world, despite state-of-the-art tests now employed to screen-out diseased blood. There are also many other conditions that will disqualify potential donors, although the system is only as effective as the applicants are honest. This autumn, however, CBS finally started accepting stem cell donations from gay men. The latest Health Canada guidelines now allow for tissue, cell, and organ donation by gay men, but that change doesn’t apply to blood products. Some say that the screening technology is now effective enough that it doesn’t pose a significant risk to the hundreds of Canadians waiting for donors, and that the policy perpetuates longstanding myths about gay men; others feel that prohibiting gay men from donating is not discriminatory, but simply a matter of public safety and common sense.