Blood narratives

How blood defines a person

Although their slogan is the all-inclusive interpellation “It’s in you to give,” Canadian Blood Services has strict criteria regarding donors. People with potential exposure to certain viruses, such as HIV, are excluded from the donation process.

The website states: “You should not give blood if you have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV.”

Risky activities include having lived in Africa, as well as having had sex with someone who has lived there. Other risks include having “taken money or drugs for sex,” “used intravenous street drugs” and the overarching category of “men who have sex with men.”

“Stories about health and wellness are also measured in the physical presence of blood,” Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, says. Through these stories, cultural narratives are created.

Dryden explains that this is evident in the Canadian Blood Services questionnaire, the goal of which is to protect the blood supply.

“The desire to avoid a repeat of the tainted blood crisis means that a great number of the questions focus on the transmission of HIV,” she says. However, this also means that the questionnaire gives insight into the way Canadian Blood Services perceives HIV transmission.

Alongside the questionnaire, Canadian Blood Services has a screening process for the blood collected. According to their web page, they use “antibody testing and nucleic acid testing (NAT) to test every donation for HIV.” This test is “highly sensitive” and can detect the virus even during the nine-day window period after a person contracts it.

It is important not to confuse HIV with AIDS, as HIV is the contractible virus, and AIDS is the condition created by the virus, Dryden says.

This distinction is especially important in regards to viral suppression treatments, which effectively eliminate the risk of transmission. A Huffington Post article from 2017 states that “people with HIV who are durably virally suppressed cannot transmit the virus.”

However, Canadian Blood Services still refuses blood from anyone who has ever tested HIV-positive, as well as individuals who have engaged in behaviour deemed risky. When contacted for comment, Canadian Blood Services referred The Uniter to their FAQ section on the website for clarification.

“Canadian Blood Services makes the connections between sex and sexual contact, travelling, sex work, tattooing, sexual identities and ethno-racial identities with blood. Specifically, it equates these identities, actions and behaviours with the root cause of AIDS,” Dryden says.

She explains that the questionnaire frames the notion that only gay men partake in unprotected anal sex, and it also gives the impression that any kind of contact with Africa is so out of the ordinary as to warrant suspicion of the virus.

“Homophobia and racism remain instrumental in framing the beliefs, the scientific ‘truths’ about HIV and AIDS,” Dryden says.

“I would argue that these beliefs are outdated and are steeped in homophobia, racism and sex phobia,” she says. “HIV and AIDS are overly connected to sex. Therefore, we must consider the sex-phobic based morality that informs the stigmas surrounding HIV and AIDS.”

Dryden suggests that these guidelines represent what Canadian Blood Services sees as a member of the general public, and who is an outsider.

“In this case, men who have sex with men, people from Africa and sex workers are considered to be outsiders – not the ‘regular, everyday members’ of the general public,” she says.

Dryden also believes that these stereotypes influence the medical world.

“Science will remain challenging as long as these subjective, homophobic, racist stereotypes continue to inform the type of research that gets done and the decisions regarding the types of research that gets funded,” she says.

Published in Volume 72, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 11, 2018)

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