Vancouver clinic looks to recruit sexually active gay men for blood donations

This piece was also featured in: The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER —

Despite decades of being banned from giving blood, sexually active gay men are now being asked to donate to a Vancouver clinic that is doing research into blood products.

On Feb. 4, the Network Centre for Applied Development (netCAD) located at the University of British Columbia’s Point Grey campus is playing host to a Rainbow Donor Clinic. Blood collected at netCAD will not be used for blood transfusion, meaning those who are typically deterred from donating are welcome.

Chad Walters, a 30-year-old Vancouver gay man, took issue with Canadian Blood Services policies for years.

“I felt at that point that it was wrong and discriminatory, like many in the gay community feels,” he said.

Mr. Walters said he eventually had a change of heart after CBS introduced him to netCAD five years ago, giving him the opportunity to finally donate. He’s now leading this week’s campaign to recruit gay men, as well as those who have been rejected after having recent tattoos or piercings or travelling to certain countries with a high prevalence of blood-borne diseases such as HIV.

“Until I can give back for transfusions specifically, I may as well give back for research and development, potentially saving millions of lives,” he said.

NetCAD is the only clinic of its kind in the world and the demand for blood for research through the clinic is growing, said Jason Acker, senior development scientist for Canadian Blood Services.

Much of the research at netCAD is aimed at improving the quality of blood that is administered to recipients. The process of collecting and storing blood used in blood transfusions can affect different properties of blood Dr. Acker explained. For patients who are in severe trauma, they may need higher quality blood – but it is currently difficult to determine the level of quality.

The hope is that research conducted using blood products collected at netCAD will eventually lead to new tests on the quality of blood donations, making blood transfusions safer and more effective for recipients, Dr. Acker said.

The safety of donated blood is another area researchers may explore.

Currently, netCAD is not researching research methods to improve screening for HIV and other diseases, explained Tanya Petraszko, associate medical director for West Canadian Blood Services. But, researchers from universities or private corporations can put forward proposals to partner with the clinic.

Historically, sexually active gay men have been deferred from donating blood because of the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis C within that community and the risk it posed to blood-transfusion recipients.

As of 2013, gay men have been allowed to donate blood for medical use as long as they have been abstinent for five years.

For gay men in long-term relationships, Dr. Petraszko acknowledged the policy is perceived as restrictive. If the risk for recipients remains unchanged after the 2013 policy shift, she said Canadian Blood Services could appeal to Health Canada for further changes in the future.

“A lot of people don’t even know that this clinic exists,” Mr. Walters said.

“If there’s an interest to help and to help by giving blood, netCad provides the space to do so.”

People wishing to participate in the netCAD donation drive can book an appointment by contacting the clinic.

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Linda Givetash

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Linda Givetash is a Canadian-South African freelance journalist based in Vancouver, B.C. Her work has appeared in print, digital and broadcast media outlets around the globe.