Opinion

FDA Blood Drive Laws

Zoe Heinz, Contributor

Thursday, September 13th, the CCOC hosted a blood drive through Rock River Valley Blood Center.  After hitting a 15-year low, according to USA Today, in the blood supply in July, it’s great that Beloit students and community members are able to help those in desperate need of blood. But not all Beloiters can help.

According to the American Red Cross, only 38 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood.  Why so low?  A variety of disqualifications can render a person incapable of giving blood: recent tattooing, piercing or acupuncture, having Hepatitis, a chest cold, or homosexual tendencies. If that last one didn’t surprise you, then you’ve got something in common with the FDA. Yes, that’s right. Men who have sex with men (MSMs) can’t donate blood in the United States.

FDA policy states: “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.”

It is important to note that sexual history is the one condition listed above that does not have a time limit. You can give blood four months after a piercing and one year after being treated for an exposure to Hepatitis.  But if a man who had sex with another man once in 1977—even if currently HIV tests are negative—walks into a blood drive, under FDA policy, he must be turned away.

One listed justification is that this policy is in line with the “prevailing interpretation” of British laws. The FDA cites article 2.1 of the European Union Directive 2004/33/EC, which states, “Persons whose sexual behavior puts them at high risk of acquiring severe infectious diseases that can be transmitted by blood.” Alright, so all men who have ever had sex with a man must be disease ridden.  I got lost in that translation.

However, before we try to change policies like this we need to look at the reality of why the policy is in place and how to go about changing things for the better.  The policy’s understandable intention is to protect the blood supply.  It is important to understand that statistically men who have sex with other men are significantly more likely to have HIV.  According to the 2009 Gallup Panel, a population that makes up approximately 3 percent of the US population reported 61 percent of new cases of HIV in 2009.

Dr. Louis Katz, former President of America’s Blood Centers explained why it is so difficult to invoke change.  “When policy change is attempted, the pros and cons of the MSM policy are weighted.  Here is the statistical reality: if MSMs are allowed to donate blood, every 30-56 years there will be another case of accidental HIV infection. The discrepancies between 30 and 56 years depend on which agency is outputting information because they use different assumptions in their models.”

Policy makers examine statistics such as these, and weigh it with the small percentage of blood that will be donated if the ban is lifted.  While Dr. Katz and many others believe this is worth the risk, the FDA does not.

Here is the social reality: the FDA’s policy works to perpetuate the stereotype that all gay men have AIDS. Under a policy like the one recently enacted in the UK, a man can donate blood if he has not had sex with a man for the past 12 months.

There’s a major problem with this. Who is going to give up sex for a year, just so they can donate blood?  I wouldn’t. And when we are already looking at such a small population, the increased adequacy of the blood supply shrinks even further.

Instead of saying “men who have sex with men” are at risk, we need to isolate specific behaviors.  I find it hard to believe that there are not others who are at higher risk for contracting HIV than these men.  We need to isolate the behaviors that are seen as dangerous.  Is the issue anal sex?  Oral sex? The FDA fails to address this issue.  Relating a sexual interaction to a disease based on the gender of the two people is downright homophobic.  There are plenty of sexual acts that two men perform just as a heterosexual couple does.  Why not ask “Do you regularly have (insert specific sexual acts here) with multiple partners?” instead of “Have you ever had sex with a man?”

By studying what specific behaviors make an individual more likely to contract HIV, perhaps we can actually make the blood supply safer and increase the number of people who can contribute to this supply.

Invoking change can be difficult, particularly within bureaucracies like the FDA. Instead of perpetuating stereotypes in an attempt to keep the blood supply safe, we can make it safer while also enacting socially just policies.

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