EDITORIAL

We're still giving blood like it's 1989

Posted

Giving blood is giving the gift of life, something collection groups like the American Red Cross have proclaimed for many years.

Yet, of the 123 million or so Americans eligible to give blood, less than 10 percent do so each year. And that can create problems, because according to the Red Cross more than 21 million blood components are transfused each year — red blood cells, platelets and plasma — which is almost double the number of people who choose to donate.

 How do we get people to open their hearts — and veins — to provide this precious resource? The Red Cross and other blood collection organizations do everything from giveaways, to even paying people, in some instances, to donate. 

But there is one group of Americans who would love to help, but can’t. That is, unless they remain celibate: men who sleep with men.

This ban against the gay and bisexual community is not the fault of Red Cross or other groups — it’s a mandate from the Food and Drug Administration requiring these organizations to not only ask invasive questions about a potential donor’s sexual history, but then to deny him if he says yes to having sex with someone of the same gender. 

This discriminatory practice dates back to the AIDS scare of the 1980s after some patients receiving transfusions became infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a tainted blood supply.

Back then, testing was still arcane, and banning donors based on behavioral risk factors made sense — especially for an infection that had a nearly 100 percent mortality rate, and which predominantly targeted the gay community.

But this isn’t the 1980s anymore. A positive HIV diagnosis no longer is an automatic death sentence. The number of annual infections have decreased 18 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to HIV.gov, and today’s tests not only are quite accurate, they’re extremely fast, able to detect a new infection within weeks. 

And it’s not like the FDA has ignored all this. Before 2015, if a man admitted to having sex with another man even one time, he was banned for life. Now gay and bisexual men are welcomed to donate — just so long as they have completely abstained from sex in the last 12 months.

Could you imagine that requirement on heterosexual couples? Would it be right to tell a man and wife they had to abstain from sex for a year simply to donate blood?

The FDA makes no exception for men who practice safe sex, or for men who are in monogamous relationships — both part of groups that have an HIV infection risk of near-zero. Which is far better than straight people who engage in risky sex — they account for a quarter of new HIV infections, according to the CDC, yet the FDA will still let both men and women engaged in that behavior to donate without question.

Enough already. The FDA needs to recognize this ban simply for what it is: Discrimination against gay and bisexual men, forcing them to be abstinent, not donate at all, or simply lie about their personal lives so they can donate anyway.

The FDA has a duty to protect the blood supply, and they should be encouraged to do so. But policies — especially those targeting specific “risk behaviors” — must be consistent and need to make sense. 

And that means re-examining once again how gay and bisexual potential donors are treated.

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