The American Red Cross will not accept blood donations from men who have had sex with men, and women who have had sex with these men (who have had sex with men). The official United States FDA policy forbids it (updated May 2007), stating:
“Men who have had sex with other men, at any time since 1977 (the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the United States) are currently deferred as blood donors. This is because MSM are, as a group, at increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by transfusion.
Blood donor testing using current advanced technologies has greatly reduced the risk of HIV transmission but cannot yet detect all infected donors or prevent all transmission by transfusions. While today’s highly sensitive tests fail to detect less than one in a million HIV infected donors, it is important to remember that in the US there are over 20 million transfusions of blood, red cell concentrates, plasma or platelets every year. Therefore, even a failure rate of 1 in a million can be significant if there is an increased risk of undetected HIV in the blood donor population.”
The U.S.’s current alleged risk rate is HIGHER than France’s. I know that correlation does not imply causation. France and Italy’s respective HIV transmission rates via blood transfusion did not drop BECAUSE they began to allow gay donors. But these trends are a challenge to the doomsday FDA model; the U.S. could allow gay donors while pursuing its ever-important mission of reducing the risk of HIV infection via blood transfusion to 0. Lifting the ban would save lives. Period.
The policy stigmatizes gay men as diseased people who need to be quarantined in a time when knowledge about safe sex in the gay community is widespread. Although places like DC are in an HIV epidemic (3% of DC’s population is HIV-positive), the screening methods today preclude any suspicion about gay men and transmission rates. Also, heterosexual donors are not asked if they have had unprotected sex; logically, two gay men having protected sex are less likely to transmit HIV than a straight couple swapping fluids.
This policy also creates unfortunate consequences; some gay men I know lie about their behavior, while most others just refuse to donate. The former means this FDA policy is encouraging donors to lie about their behavior or “risk level” (which is undesirable), and the latter means that blood donations are still a scarce resource, because a significant chunk of the population is banned for LIFE from donating.
Current avenues of changing the policy
1. Legislative: There is currently a joint resolution up in the California Legislature, AJR 13 (Ammiano), that officially classifies blood drives as discriminatory activities that oppose the CA State Legislature’s policy of nondiscrimination. It recognizes that the American Red Cross has urged the FDA to lift the ban. It was referred to Judiciary Committee on April 20, where it remains and from which it probably will not move.
2. Highbrow: The American Association of Blood Banks (which includes the Red Cross) provides 80% of blood donations in the United States (according to their website). The American Red Cross previously issued a letter to the FDA urging them to lift the ban, because of adequate testing measures. The FDA refused, probably because letters achieve nothing.
3. Grassroots: Via student government, college campuses nationwide are banning blood drives from their campus because of the flagrant violation of nondiscrimination policies. These savvy campuses include:
CSU San Jose
Southern Oregon University
Cal Berkeley tried and failed, in April. Queer members of the student senate were split on the issue as well; one made the outlandish comment that he’d rather have his rights taken away to save lives. This is clearly moot, as gay blood bans do not necessarily lower the incidence rate of hiv transmission via infusion. It was also based in the ignorance as to the number of new donors and potential new lives saved due to a greater blood supply.
This is controversial. Gradually, students are realizing that it costs MORE lives to ostracize millions of healthy potential donors. There seems to be little debate at universities, however, as to whether blood drives discriminate: they simply disagree on banning them from campus.
Step back. Change happens when people are inconvenienced. When the Red Cross can go to the FDA and say, “We are running out of blood because young people refuse to donate, in solidarity with the movement for equality,” then, THEN, the FDA might consider lifting this antiquated piece of discrimination.
*U.S. numbers (1 in 1.4 million) are from the Natural Standard, Worldwide from UCSF, Italy (2007) numbers from Haematologica: The Hematology Journal, Italy (1992) numbers from Italian Blood Centers, France (1991) from the International AIDS Society and the International Journal of Epidemiology, and France 2003 numbers from Eurosurveillance and L’Etablissement Français du sang.