Stereotyping Still Inhibits Blacks from Donating Blood

The Black community in Ottawa highlights a pressing need for ethnically diverse blood donations in Canada. However, a lingering hesitancy exists within the community due to past experiences of being denied the opportunity to donate, rooted in historical stereotypes.

Tanya Elese

Despite the potential for better outcomes in blood transfusions for individuals with rare blood diseases like sickle cell anemia when the donors share similar ethnic backgrounds, many Black Canadians, particularly those from Africa, express reluctance. This reluctance stems from being turned away in the past, with some facing up to three years of denial based on outdated perceptions.

Historically, Black Canadians faced restrictions due to the prevalence of malaria in Africa, regardless of their personal health history. The Canadian Blood Services (CBS) implemented screening questions that limited donations from individuals associated with Central African Republic, Cameroon, Chad, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Niger, or Nigeria after 1977, citing concerns about HIV testing reliability.

CBS has since relaxed its policies, reducing the waiting period for donations from individuals from malaria-endemic regions to three months. However, the impact of restrictive eligibility criteria on immigrants from Africa remains evident, as 47 out of 54 African countries are listed as at risk for malaria, according to CBS.

Janet Jackden, a member of the Sickle Cell Awareness Group of Ontario (SCAGO), faced rejection when attempting to donate blood due to her Nigerian origin. Despite not having malaria, she was initially turned away. After the birth of her daughter, diagnosed with sickle cell disease, Jackden persisted and eventually succeeded in donating.

Tanya Elese, the south-east region coordinator of SCAGO, said she sees many Black people reluctant to even try to donate.

Recent data from CBS indicates that 25% of the blood donor base consists of individuals from ethnically diverse groups. However, challenges persist for travelers returning from high-risk malaria regions, as they must wait up to three years before donating blood in Canada. This waiting period is attributed to the absence of a suitable Health Canada-approved test for screening such travelers.

Eloise Tan, CBS’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, explains that the three-year waiting period is due to the lack of an approved test for screening malaria. While those who have contracted malaria cannot donate blood in Canada, they may still contribute plasma and join the stem cell registry. In contrast, other countries, like the United States, allow individuals with a history of malaria to donate blood after a three-year post-treatment waiting period.