Collaborating with researchers and blood donor groups on donation criteria

As we continue to protect the safety of Canada’s blood supply, we also work with researchers and stakeholders (https://www.blood.ca/en/about-us/governance/public-committees) to keep our donation criteria up to date.

We continuously assess our blood donor eligibility criteria against the latest available medical and scientific evidence while also considering our evolving social environment. As a publicly funded organization serving all Canadians, we need to maintain a critical balance between protecting the safety of the blood supply and collaborating with diverse groups whose views deserve to be treated with respect and sensitivity.

In recent years, we’ve focused on two communities in which blood donation eligibility criteria have created a high level of concern: men who have sex with men (MSM) and people who identify as trans or gender non-binary.

We have added to our public information resources on this subject, including an FAQ video on our website, and a research article that provides more information about MSM donation eligibility criteria around the world.

Eligibility of men who have sex with men

In the summer of 2016, Health Canada approved a proposal from Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec to reduce the blood donation ineligibility period for MSM from five years to one year.

The following January, again in partnership with Héma-Québec, we hosted a meeting of national and international stakeholders to identify research priorities that would help close critical knowledge gaps in this area of donor eligibility. Participants included researchers, blood operators and government officials, as well as members of the LGBTQ+ community and representatives of patients who depend on and bear the risk related to blood products.

Leveraging the promising ideas and investigative priorities brought forward in this meeting, our Centre for Innovation launched a new national research program funded through Health Canada. During our competitive review process, 11 projects were approved. These projects are led by investigators representing various disciplines and academic institutions and engage multiple health-care organizations. They are examining various aspects of the donor eligibility criteria for MSM and will provide data that is critical to develop a more inclusive alternative donor screening approach that maintains the safety of the blood supply. To complement our research in this area, we facilitated a knowledge-exchange webinar in December 2017 to support greater collaboration among research groups.

A second research funding competition was launched in 2018, and proposals are being evaluated as this annual report goes to press. We believe the findings from these studies will help us come to a long-term solution that allows us to maintain patient safety while welcoming the generous donations of as many Canadians as possible — and minimizing the impact of these eligibility criteria on the LGBTQ+ community, or indeed any prospective MSM donors. We continue to evaluate donor criteria and have committed to further evolution as evidence permits.

Eligibility of donors identifying as trans

Our 2016 submission to Health Canada to reduce the ineligibility period for MSM donors also included a proposed new screening process and eligibility criteria for trans donors. When we shared our proposal publicly, members of the trans and gender non-binary communities vigorously challenged what they saw as a lack of insight into the nuances of gender and identity, and the diversity and complexity of individual experiences.

We then conducted extensive consultations with community representatives and, in a May 2017 report, summarized the key points we heard:

  • Donor criteria based on behaviours that pose a risk to the blood system, rather than assumptions about gender and identity, are essential for a screening process that respects trans and gender non-binary individuals.
  • A clear and consistent process will help to reduce the sense of discrimination that many trans and gender non-binary individuals have reported experiencing.
  • Better training of Canadian Blood Services staff — including sensitivity training, as well as education on accepted terminology — would create a more respectful and comfortable donor experience.

We took these and many other points of feedback to heart. Working with consultants from the trans community, we have implemented a staff training program to raise our collective understanding and foster greater respect for trans and gender non-binary individuals.