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 Annual 2014

Annual 2014

 

           
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The Blood Donor Controversy

Despite advances in medicine, gay men continue to be banned from giving blood.

Evan Low

In recent years, gay Americans have achieved many victories including the right to marry and serve in the military, yet current U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines continue to prevent gay men from donating blood.

The FDA implemented the ban in 1983, when health officials were first recognizing the risk of contracting AIDS via blood transfusions. Under the policy, blood donations are barred from any man who has had sex with another man at any time since 1977—the start of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. That’s because, the FDA argues, that gay men are at an increased risk of “certain transfusion transmissible infections” like AIDS and hepatitis B. 

Thirty years later, the FDA continues to classify all gay men in the highest-risk blood-donor category—the same category as IV drug users. Even with a clean bill of health, a gay man is considered more of a threat to the blood supply than a straight man treated for chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, venereal warts, and genital herpes within the past year.

Critics of the lifetime blood ban say the policy has been rendered obsolete by advances in testing that can detect HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—within days of infection. Today, every sample of blood collected at U.S. blood banks is tested for HIV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, and several other diseases. Within seven to 10 days, it can be reported with a 99.9 percent accuracy whether a blood sample is HIV-positive.

When Campbell Mayor Evan Low received a letter this past summer from the American Red Cross asking for his assistance in organizing a blood drive, he felt conflicted. While he fully supported the idea of hosting a blood drive, Low, who is openly gay, knew he wouldn’t be able to donate.

“It’s like being asked to host a party you can’t attend,” says Low, who has started a petition on the website, www.change.org, to support an end to the lifetime deferral on blood donations from gay men. “Now that we have reliable blood tests for AIDS, it’s time to change the deferral.”

Low says he doesn’t view the ban as an LGBT civil rights issue but as a medical issue. He adds that many people aren’t even aware the lifetime blood ban still exists.

“Blood donations were needed after the Boston Marathon bombing, and after the Asiana crash in San Francisco, and yet healthy gay and bisexual men weren’t able to donate,” Low says. 

Jared Schultzman, communications manager for the American Red Cross’ Northern California Blood Services Region in Oakland, says the American Red Cross and other organizations have been asking for a change to the deferral criteria for the past seven years. 

“In 2006, the [American Association of Blood Banks], the Red Cross, and America’s Blood Centers presented a joint position to the Food and Drug Administration’s Blood Products Advisory Committee stating our belief that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted and recommending that the deferral criteria be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections.” Schultzman says.

All of these organizations, Low, and other advocates say they would like to see the current ban changed from a lifetime one to a 12-month deferral, following the lead of countries such as Australia, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Japan, England, Scotland, Canada, and Wales, that have lifted their lifetime ban on blood donations by homosexual and bisexual men.

Even the American Medical Association has joined the debate, stating in June that it opposes the lifetime ban on gays donating blood, calling it “discriminatory and not based on science.” In August, 80 bipartisan members of Congress wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services criticizing the lifetime ban as an outdated measure that perpetuates inaccurate stereotypes against gay men.

As of September 2013, the FDA said it would only consider lifting the ban “only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in the policy would not represent a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients.” 

Low agrees that public safety should be a top priority, but believes that policy could be updated from a lifetime ban to a year, as has been done in other countries, without affecting the safety of the blood supply. 

“We are in 2013 and we can use science to determine the criteria for tainted blood,” Low says. It’s very important that we look at behavior and science instead of a discriminatory policy.”

 

How to Protest the Ban

If you support lifting the lifetime blood ban, Low invites people to contact their local Congressional representative and ask them to urge the FDA to repeal and re-evaluate the lifetime blood ban on gays and bisexuals. You can also sign his petition at change.org/petitions/fda-stop-discriminating-against-me-and-other-gay-men-who-want-to-donate-blood.

The Banned4Life Project (www.banned4life.org) was started by Blake Lynch, a Florida nursing student and gay man who, because of the ban, could not donate blood to help a friend who has sickle cell anemia and regularly needs blood transfusions. Lynch hopes to raise awareness of the lifetime blood ban.

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