Did you know gay men aren’t allowed to give blood in the US?

Gay men aren't allowed to give blood Red Cross rainbow flag

When I tuned in to the premiere of #RichKids of Beverly Hills I was expecting to be shocked by over-the-top lavishness and wealth — I was not expecting to be shocked to find out I was completely ignorant of the fact that gay and/or bisexual men are not allowed to give blood in the United States! In addition, there are also restrictions placed on women who have had sex with a gay and/or bisexual man.

As you might imagine, the ban dates back to the early 1980s when it was realized AIDS could be transmitted via blood transfusion. In 1983 the FDA instituted the ban and to this day any man giving blood must fill out a questionnaire that includes the question, “From 1977 to the present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?” If you are male and you answer yes to that question it is a lifetime ban from donating blood. Men who have had sex with other men (or MSM) are on a short list of groups banned for life that includes those who have received payment for sex, intravenous drug users, and those who have tested positive for HIV and other infections.

In addition, women who have had sexual intercourse with any MSM cannot give blood until one year after their last such sexual encounter This is what is called a “deferment” and is what most other countries have transitioned to since the advancement in HIV tests over the last couple decades.

“Within seven to 10 days, we can say with 99.9 percent accuracy whether or not a blood sample is HIV-positive. The chance of an HIV-positive blood sample testing negative after the 7 to-10-day window is about 1 in 2 million,” says Barry Zingman, M.D., medical director of the AIDS Center at Montefiore Medical Center and a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “That’s why, if you’ve had unsafe sex within the past 10 days, it might be reasonable for us to send you home. But a lifetime ban — or even a one-year ban, for that matter — is kind of ridiculous. It takes a week or two to diagnose HIV, not a lifetime. Medically speaking, there is no doubt in my mind that this ban doesn’t stand on good footing.”

From the same NBC News article:

While the FDA supports those odds, they still consider that level of risk — however miniscule it may seem to the average person — to be too high. “During the ‘window period’ a person infected with HIV may not have enough virus or antibodies to be detected by tests. They could test negative even when they’re HIV-positive and infectious,” says Curtis Allen, an FDA spokesman. “Also, the blood that has already been collected and stored in a blood bank may be given accidentally to a patient in error before testing is completed.”

The Red Cross supports a one-year deferment, but The Department of Health and Human Services, under which the FDA operates, upheld the ban the last time it considered arguments to change it in 2010.

Here is an excerpt on the United States’ policy of banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood from the Wikipedia entry for “Gay male blood donor controversy:

In the US, the current guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is to indefinitely defer any male donor who has had sex with another man, in the period from 1977 to the present day. In early 2012 the Department of Health in the United Kingdom asked for comments on a pilot study to “assess alternative policies that would allow some gay and bisexual men to donate blood.”

Female sexual partners of MSM are deferred for one year since the last exposure. This is the same policy used for any sexual partner of someone in a high risk group. The argument used to follow these policies is that blood should be collected from a population that is at low risk for disease, since the tests are not perfect and human error may lead to infected units not being properly discarded, and these population groups would be considered a high risk. The policy was first put in place in 1985.

Donors of what the FDA calls “HCT/P’s”, a category that includes transplants (other than organs) and some reproductive tissue, notably anonymous semen donations, are ineligible for five years after the most recent contact. UNOS policies for Organ donation require the hospital receiving the organ to be notified if the donor was an MSM within the past 5 years. The organs are generally used unless there is a clear positive test for a disease.

History of calls to change the policy:

In 2006, the AABB, American Red Cross, and America’s Blood Centers all supported a change from the current US policy of a lifetime deferral of MSM to one year since most recent contact. One model suggested that this change would result in one additional case of HIV transmitted by transfusion every 32.8 years. The AABB has suggested making this change since 1997. The FDA did not accept the proposal and had concerns about the data used to produce the model, citing that additional risk to recipients was not justified.

On August 19, 2009, the Assembly Judiciary Committee in California passed AJR13, the U.S. Blood Donor Nondiscrimination Resolution, calling upon the FDA to end the MSM blood ban.

In April 2010, the New York City Council passed a resolution calling on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to eliminate the ban stating “This ban was based on prejudice, a knee-jerk reaction, and misunderstandings about the HIV/AIDS disease. Given the constant need for blood, it does not make common sense to prohibit donations from an entire population.”

On June 1, 2010, the Washington, DC City Council passed a resolution calling on the FDA to “reverse the lifetime deferment of blood donations by men who have had sex with men since 1977 in favor of a policy that protects the safety and integrity of the blood supply that is based on an up-to-date scientific criteria.”

In June 2013, the American Medical Association issued a statement calling on the FDA to change the policy, stating that “The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

In July 2013, the American Osteopathic Association approved a policy calling on the FDA to “end the indefinite deferment period for Men who have sex with Men (MSM)”, and to “modify the exclusion criteria for MSM to be consistent with deferrals for those judged to be at an increased risk of infection.”

Here a couple of links with in-depth articles about the ban on homosexual and bisexual men from giving blood in the US:

Tainted: Why Gay Men Still Can’t Donate Blood (The Atlantic)

Banned for life: Why gay men still can’t donate blood (NBC News / Mens Health)

Also, if you support changes being made to allow gay men to donate blood, you will want to visit www.banned4life.org

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