After the tainted blood crisis of the early 1980s, 2,000 Canadians were infected with HIV and more than 30,000 contracted hepatitis C from infected blood.
Sadly, about 8,000 of those who received bad blood are expected to die.
A federal inquiry into one of the most significant health crises in the country’s history found that it was driven in part by negligent safety protocols.
After his investigation into the deadly scandal, Justice Horace Krever affirmed that Canada’s blood supply system should remain voluntary and public. He recommended Canadians only be paid for their donations in limited circumstances and cited one rare blood collection centre in Winnipeg as an exception.
So why, then, are private, paid-plasma clinics in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick collecting this life-giving material from Canadians in exchange for a refillable VISA card?
I introduced Bill S-252, the Voluntary Blood Donations Act, to strengthen our blood donation policy in Canada by proposing a ban on payments for blood “donations” and called for a moratorium on licences for cash-for-blood clinics, as there is evidence that this approach undermines our long-standing history of voluntary donations.
As Justice Krever wrote in his 1,138-page report, “persons who receive money in exchange for blood and plasma donations may have an incentive to donate even when they know they should not.”
Despite the tainted blood crisis, paid plasma is not actually illegal. In fact, there are already some 18 private, paid-plasma licences awaiting approval from Health Canada, beyond the clinics that are already operating. The companies in operation are currently exporting the plasma they have collected out of this country, making no contribution to our blood supply.
This contravenes every single fundamental recommendation of the Krever inquiry.
When I was a journalist, I interviewed some of the victims who received bad blood, and their families, and I can tell you they were devastated. I have come to count these people as friends.
I’m not the only person to make this argument. Canadian Blood Services, which was formed to take management of our blood system following the release of the Krever report, has repeatedly asked the government to stop issuing these licences. But Health Canada continues to ignore their warnings.
The security of our domestic supply is also at stake. One paid “donor” out of our public blood system is one volunteer donor taken from our supply chain. Volunteer blood is for fellow Canadians.
Today we can test for HIV, and Hepatitis C; however, we cannot test for what is unknown. A new virus could impact the blood supply in many ways, so we need to ensure that our national blood authority is the gatekeeper, ensuring transparency and accountability to Canadians.
Canada’s blood collection system must remain one that is driven by the human instinct to help one another, not by personal gain or the profit of a company. We must encourage giving.
This spirit is alive and well in Canada. In April after the tragic crash involving the Humboldt Broncos in Saskatchewan, and following the horrific van attack in Toronto, generous Canadians rolled up their sleeves to donate life-saving blood to those in need.
It’s disheartening to learn that ads for these cash-for-plasma clinics are placed above urinals in universities or in areas where the health of the “donors” may be compromised.
Canadian donors are not meant to be a revenue stream for private companies looking to make a profit.
Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and, recently, British Columbia, have all shown leadership by banning for-profit plasma companies from operating in order to secure supply and protect the donor base from erosion.
As a country, we must learn from past mistakes. If we don’t learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Senator Pamela Wallin is a former journalist whose work helped to expose the devastation wrought by the tainted-blood scandal. She represents Saskatchewan in the Senate.
This article was first published in the Regina Leader Post on June 11, 2018.