Gay men are not allowed to donate blood. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) treats every man who has ever had sex with another man as a vector for fatal cooties.
Really, it’s about that rational. Other countries, like Spain and Italy, happily accept donations from gay men and distribute them to the surgery patients, accident victims and others who desperately need them.
The FDA’s original concern wasn’t cooties. Those of us who were around in the 1980s remember the level of panic inspired by HIV and AIDS, then a newly identified epidemic with no effective treatment. In the search for ways to protect themselves, people fixated on avoiding the populace with the highest incidence of infection: gay men. Without a viable test to screen for HIV infections, in 1983 the FDA issued a blanket ban against blood donations from men who had sex with other men (it refers to this group as MSM).
That era is long past. Now blood collection agencies can – and do — easily test for HIV before accepting donations. The test they use detects HIV “within days of infection.” The risk of HIV infection via blood transfusion is just one in 2.3 million. The Mayo Clinic reports that transfusion recipients are far more likely to contract the bacterial infection sepsis (one in one million), and that compared to HIV, West Nile virus is rampant in donated blood (one in 350,000 units).
Gay men are still more likely to contract HIV than other groups. 61 percent of new HIV infections occur in men who have had sex with men. But the reason isn’t that they have sex with men; it is that they have unsafe sex. That is why Spain and Italy screen out any potential donor who has had unsafe sex with anyone.
So why won’t the FDA lift the ban? It goes back to cooties, or, more precisely, “the stigma that gay and bisexual men are dangerous to public health,” as Jason Cianciotto of Gay Men’s Health Crisis puts it. Lingering squeamishness about MSM is prevailing over science.
And the science is clear. Even the American Medical Association, which tends not to go out on limbs, considers the ban “discriminatory and not based on sound science.” Others who have lobbied for repeal include the American Association of Blood Banks and brainiac Senator Elizabeth Warren, who says in a letter bearing 86 legislators’ signatures that “blood donation policies should be grounded in science, not ugly and inaccurate stereotypes.”
To be fair, there are alternative explanations to my cootie theory. Dr. Louis Katz, who represents a national network of blood collection programs called America’s Blood Centers, believes that the “FDA is not homophobic – they are risk-averse.” Still, the government’s assessment of risk may not be clear-eyed and objective, but clouded by bias and a history of fear.
The result is turning away “many healthy donors,” in the FDA’s own words. The agency also admits that the risk of contracting any infectious disease from a blood transfusion is “small.”
Government homophobia isn’t new. The real surprise for me is the FDA’s statement that barring healthy people from donating blood doesn’t hurt people who need transfusions, because there is no shortage in the nation’s blood supply. The American Red Cross says it has “a surplus of blood.”
How many times have I seen and responded to urgent calls for donations because blood supplies are low? Were all of those pleas a crock? I’d like to believe they were responses to shortages of specific blood types, or increased demand in certain geographical regions, but I wonder.
Either way, I will continue to donate blood. Doing right by fellow human beings shouldn’t be contingent on the government being objective or non-profit organizations being forthright. It also shouldn’t be contingent on whom one loves. It’s time for the FDA to change its policy so it screens out people who pose a genuine risk to the safety of the blood supply and allows healthy gay men to do their part to keep us all healthy.
Photo credit: Kenny Holston 21
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