Response to blood donor eligibility change in the UK

The UK’s National Health Service has announced a change to their criteria which will make blood donation more inclusive for men who have sex with men by screening all donors based on whether they have had new or multiple sexual partners in the last three months. The UK’s new criteria will be implemented in summer 2021.

Canadian Blood Services is studying the evidence behind the changes made in the UK to understand the implications it could have for a similar approach in Canada. This work will enrich the research we’re already undertaking here.

We are on the same journey as our UK counterparts towards behaviour-based screening for all donors. We are moving in the same direction and will continue to progress towards this goal.

As an organization, we devote a great deal of focus and effort to evolving the criteria for men who have sex with men. In order for any changes to donor eligibility criteria to be approved, Canadian Blood Services must provide evidence to Health Canada, our regulator, that any new changes are safe and supported by stakeholder groups, especially patients.

We recognize that for some donors, being turned away from donating blood leaves them with a sense of frustration and disappointment. The criteria for men who have sex with men is a particularly sensitive issue affecting many who have experienced longstanding marginalization and stigma. We understand this, and we commit to further change.

Evolving criteria: past and future

Canada has one of the safest blood systems in the world. The eligibility criteria used to screen donors is part of a science-based, multi-tiered safety system that helps save patients’ lives. We see the current three-month waiting period as an incremental step in Canada’s eligibility criteria journey for men who have sex with men, not the destination.

Over the last seven years, we’ve significantly updated our eligibility criteria for men who have sex with men, and we continue to work with our regulator to evolve the criteria. In 2013, the waiting period for men who have sex with men was reduced from indefinite to five years. Then in 2016, it was reduced further from five years to one year. In May 2019, Health Canada approved Canadian Blood Services’ request to reduce the blood donation waiting period for men who have sex with men from one year to three months.

Canadian Blood Services, in partnership with Héma-Québec and with funding from Health Canada, is supporting 19 research projects investigating various aspects of blood and plasma donors’ eligibility criteria and screening process. This research program is unique to Canada and is helping us build the evidence base we need to submit to Health Canada’s regulatory branch to further evolve the criteria so we can be minimally restrictive about who can donate while safeguarding the blood supply