In the early 1980s, over 2,000 Canadians who received donated blood products were infected with HIV, 30,000 were infected with hepatitis C, and $2.7 billion in government compensation was paid to the victims in what was dubbed the “tainted blood scandal.”
It was the largest public health disaster in Canadian history, and it is the reason why Canadian Blood Services is very careful about making changes to the blood donation system that could cause Canadians to lose trust and confidence in them.
Blood donors are altruistic and generous people, and should be applauded as such. Only 50% of the Canadian population is eligible to give blood, though less than 4% of those eligible donate, and giving blood has restrictions in order to protect the blood supply.
High-risk category blood donors face restrictions to protect recipients
If you have recently gotten a tattoo or piercing, for instance, you must wait three months before giving blood. If you have travelled to a malaria risk country like India or Nigeria and stayed there for over six months, you must defer three years before donating blood, provided you never caught malaria.
It is also commonly known that there are restrictions specific to men who have sex with men (MSM), as they are in a high-risk HIV category. Prior to 2016, MSM had to wait five years to donate blood following their last sexual contact with a man, but this has now been reduced to a one-year waiting period.
Additionally, according to U.S. research, 28 per cent of trans women are HIV-positive, which is why Canadian Blood Services places trans women donors who have a male sexual partner in the high-risk category.
The donations of trans and gender-nonconforming individuals have become increasingly significant for Canadian Blood Services, as “about 30 to 50 individuals” who identify as trans or non-binary have been donating over the last few years.
Transgender donor offended by questions about his biological sex
In a recent CBC article, transgender blood donor Jack Biamonte stated he felt “uncomfortable” when asked two questions by a Canadian Blood Services staff member that related to his biological sex – “Have you slept with a male who has slept with a male?” and “Have you had a pregnancy over the past six months?”
Biamonte stated that trans people will be triggered and upset by questions that relate to their biological sex, and doesn’t believe that the questions he was asked are based in science.
Biamonte was asked whether he’d had a pregnancy in the last six months because women who are pregnant or who have been pregnant in the last six months are more likely to have certain antibodies present in their blood, which could cause fatal complications in a blood transfusion recipient.
Biamonte was asked questions related to his biological sex because he hasn’t undergone gender affirming surgery, and according to Canadian Blood Services, “Donors who have not had lower gender affirming surgery will be asked questions based on their sex assigned at birth. They will be eligible to donate or be deferred based on these criteria.” Donors who have undergone lower gender affirming surgery “will be deferred from donating blood for one year after their surgery. After that year, donors will be screened in their affirmed gender.”
Transgender people consulted believe questions about gender affirmation surgery should not be included
However, participants quoted in Canadian Blood Services’ “Consultations with Trans and Gender Non-Binary Communities — 2016 Summary Report”, explained that gender affirmation surgery is a “highly sensitive topic for most trans and gender non-binary people.” Many participants “felt it should not be included in the screening process, as it is deeply offensive.” Another comment in the Summary Report was that “We [trans people] need our privacy and not to be outed in a public space — that is a huge issue and if you mess up you may kill someone.”
Hopefully, something like Canada’s 1980s tainted blood scandal will never again occur, but that means the blood supply must be protected via a thorough screening process. While the screening process may be uncomfortable, one can always first check the Canadian Blood Services website to see if they are eligible or call ahead of time to ensure they won’t be embarrassed in person by a question they weren’t anticipating.
Blood donors are great people, and Canadian Blood Services isn’t trying to diminish the human generosity upon which they rely – they are just trying to do their job by making sure the blood they collect is safe.