WASHINGTON — Following recommendations from medical experts as well as uproar from gay rights advocates, the U.S. FDA recently reconsidered the ban on gay blood donors. The policy, which has been in place since the AIDS scare in 1983, prohibits men who have sex with other men (MSM) from donating blood. Despite efforts, a hearing on December 9 determined that the policy will remain in place.
Many signs show that the ban should be lifted, however. Blood donation policies in most countries do not focus on sexual orientation so much as safe sex practices. Australia, Japan, Great Britain and many others promote blood donations from gay men with a one-year deferment period, which allows contributions from gay men who have gone 12 months without risky sexual activity. Advocates at the most recent U.S. hearing urged the implementation of a similar deferment period, but to no avail.
Various other countries, including Italy and Spain, employ individual risk assessments for all potential donors, no matter their sexual orientation. The system screens donors for risky behavior such as prostitution, drug use and numerous sex partners with unknown sexual history. Studies show that since these policies were introduced in 2001, there has not been a noticeable increase in HIV-positive gay blood donors.
Scientific research organizations, including the American Medical Association, state that the advancements made in HIV testing and AIDS research mean that the MSM blood donation ban is no longer supported by science.
Similarly, blood bank officials explain that AIDS-detection technology has drastically improved since the policy was initiated. Previously, tests were only able to detect antibodies to the virus, but are now able to check for components of the virus itself, making detection much more accurate.
Activists from around the world argue that gay blood donor bans are discriminatory. They emphasize the inconsistencies with these bans, as heterosexual women with previous AIDS-infected partners are able to donate blood after just one year; yet, a gay man who has been celibate or monogamous is prohibited from donating.
“The existing [U.S.] policy is archaic and discriminatory because it falsely assumes that all gay men are HIV-positive regardless of their sexual behavior,” says Gay Men’s Health Crisis spokesman, Martin Algaze. “At the same time, it allows heterosexuals to donate blood even if they have participated in risky sexual or drug-use behavior.”
Activists are currently working to spread awareness and gain support toward eliminating the donation ban. “Everyone is equally at risk for HIV infection. It’s about specific sexual behavior, not about sexual orientation,” says Democratic New York state senator, Tom Duane.
Last month, Department of Health and Human Services blood safety experts voted 16-2 in favor of eliminating the ban. The experts said that their decision is supported by new research which shows that altering the donation policy would not compromise the safety of the blood supply.
Experts say blood donation laws also have a significant impact on the health industry. Countries that allow gay men to donate blood do not experience blood shortages such as the recent crisis levels reached in New York’s Blood Center. President of the center, Robert Jones, expresses the severity of the shortage which has caused donation banks to significantly reduce shipments. “Unless there is an immediate and dramatic donation increase, these reduced shipments will continue or grow worse,” said Jones.
Records show that less than 10 percent of the U.S. population donates blood annually. Yet, if just one more percent of Americans would donate, blood shortages would vanish in the immediate future. Research suggests that lifting the gay blood donor ban would augment the blood supply by two to four percent annually.
– Meagan Douches