Health Canada approves nationwide removal of blood donor ban sparked by mad cow fears

Health Canada approves nationwide removal of blood donor ban sparked by mad cow fears
A bag of blood is shown at a clinic in Montreal, Thursday, November 29, 2012.

Health Canada has granted approval to lift a ban on blood donations from people who lived or travelled in the United Kingdom, Ireland or France for long periods of time in the 1980s and 1990s, Canadian Blood Services said Wednesday.

The ban was adopted more than two decades ago by blood agencies in many countries to prevent the transmission of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease — the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.”

But almost 30 years of research and surveillance have made it clear that people who previously weren’t eligible to donate under the travel criteria can do so safely, said Dr. Aditi Khandelwal, medical officer for Canadian Blood Services.

“By removing that criteria, we will not impact the safety of the blood supply. But what we may be able to do is improve access to being a donor for many, many new people and even donors who have been recently deferred from donation for these reasons,” said Khandelwal, who is also a hematologist and blood transfusion physician in Toronto.

“This is a massive effort on the part of many, many people (including) experts in Canada and across the world to understand this particular issue,” she said, noting that both the United States and Australia lifted similar donation bans in 2022.

SEE ALSO: ‘Please donate blood’: Grizzly bear attack survivor asks British Columbians to give

The news came hours after Health Canada authorized Héma-Québec — which manages the blood supply in Quebec — to remove the same ban.

The change takes effect across the country on Dec. 4.

Since 2003, an estimated 70,000 people in Canada have been prevented from donating blood because their travel history in the United Kingdom, Ireland or France made them ineligible, said Ron Vezina, vice-president of public affairs at Canadian Blood Services.

About 7,500 people have been turned away in the last five years or so, he said, noting they are still listed in the blood agency’s system and may be contacted with a request to consider a donation.

The number of people across Canada who will now be able to donate blood is likely “a lot larger,” Vezina said.

“The great unknown for us is how many people out there (have) self-deferred. They had just heard about this (ban) through someone else or they never even tried to give blood because they just assumed they were ineligible.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.

Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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