As blood donations decline, U.S. ban on gay donors is examined
(CNN) — The American Red Cross says power outages created by recent storms in the East and Midwest cut blood donations, which were already low this summer. In June there was a nationwide shortfall, with donations down more than 10% across the country.
“We are asking people to please call 1-800-RED-CROSS or visit us at redcrossblood.org to find a way to donate if they can,” said Stephanie Millian, Red Cross director of biomedical communications. “We need people’s help.”
One group that would like to help, but legally can’t, may be moving one step closer to eligibility. Since the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic decimated their community, gay men — or MSMs (men who have sex with men) as they are called by federal agencies –– have not been allowed to donate blood. In June, a group of 64 U.S. legislators led by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services encouraging it to move forward with a study that may lead to the end of the decades-old ban.
“We remain concerned that a blanket deferral of MSM for any length of time both perpetuates the unwarranted discrimination against the bisexual and gay community and prevents healthy men from donating blood without a definitive finding of added benefit to the safety of the blood supply,” the letter said.
“This is a matter of life and death and we are turning away over 50,000 healthy men who want to donate blood,” Quigley told CNN. “A straight person who has unsafe sex with multiple partners can give blood, and that creates a greater risk than a gay person in a monogamous relationship.”
The policy started at a time when people didn’t know how the deadly virus that causes AIDS spread. At the time, there wasn’t a good test to detect whether HIV was present in donated blood, and HIV was getting into the nation’s blood supply. They knew this because hemophiliacs who were getting blood transfusions started showing symptoms of AIDS. What scientists also knew was that a disproportionate number of gay men were affected by the virus.
To eliminate risk, the Food and Drug Administration added a screening question to the federal guidelines. Blood banks were instructed to ask male donors if they had had sex with a man, even once, since 1977. The FDA regards 1977 as the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. If the potential donor responded “yes,” he would automatically be removed from the donor pool for life.
No similar questions were asked to screen out donors who engaged in other potentially risky sexual behavior. Donors weren’t asked about the number of partners they had, nor were they asked if their sexual partners had engaged in unprotected sex with other HIV positive partners.
“While the Red Cross is obligated by law to follow the FDA guidelines, we continue to work with the AABB (formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks) to push through policies that would be much more fair and consistent among donors who engage in similar risk activities,” Millian said.
Scientists can now screen for most instances of HIV within days of infection, and the nation’s blood banks have called a lifetime ban “medically and scientifically unwarranted.”
Men who have sex with men still are disproportionately affected by the virus and account for nearly half the approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it is a person’s behavior, not their sexual orientation, that puts them at risk say health experts.
While he is a gay man, Adam Denney thinks he would be the perfect candidate to donate blood. He doesn’t use IV drugs. He practices safer sex. He even educates people on how to prevent new HIV infections as a regular volunteer educator with AIDS Volunteers Inc. in Lexington, Kentucky. He thinks his exclusion is unfair.
“Yes, gay men are still a high-risk community, but so are minority women, and there are no standards prohibiting them from donating. There would be rightful outrage against that kind of blanket population ban,” Denney said. “I am banned based on one reason only, my sexual orientation. It’s totally discriminatory.”
When Denney went to donate at a blood drive on the Eastern Kentucky University Campus a few years ago, he said he knew what likely would happen when the nurses asked the sexual history question. “I did know what I was getting into, but I was shocked by how it felt to be rejected,” he said. “It was almost like they thought I wasn’t important enough to give blood, like because I was gay I didn’t count. It was a horrible feeling.”
Nathan Schaefer with GMHC, an AIDS service organization, said Denney normally would be the type of donor blood banks are hungry for. Studies show those who give blood when they are young become regular lifetime donors, something most blood banks are struggling to find these days. GMHC has been fighting to change the ban for years.