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Community reacts to ban on blood donations from gay men

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Posted: Monday, November 30, 2009 12:40 am

Danny Chaviano is a relatively normal guy.

He loves pasta. He plays piano. He pays taxes.

He’s your neighbor, your classmate, your average civil engineering student. He speaks of his calculus class with an air of slight disgust, and he thinks one of the weirdest things about himself is his utter dislike of steak.

But the Food and Drug Administration thinks this 18-year-old, piano-playing, pasta-eating, UF engineering student is a potential threat to blood banks everywhere.

Chaviano is just one of the sexually active, gay American men who have been turned away from donating blood since 1983 when, in the light of the AIDS scare, the FDA enacted an umbrella ban on any man who has had sexual contact with another man since 1977.

“I couldn’t do something for someone just because of my sexuality,” Chaviano said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

And he’s not the only one who doesn’t understand or agree with the 26-year-old ban.

Jeremy Whitaker, now a 19-year-old UF student, was the vice president of his high school’s semiannual blood drive when he was turned away from donating blood. 

Although he helped sponsor the event that accrued about 60 quarts of blood, he was deemed ineligible for the same reason Chaviano was: He is a sexually active gay man.

“I was supposed to be a leader in something, and I couldn’t even contribute,” Whitaker said.

The ban, which also includes any woman who has had sexual contact with a man who might have had sexual contact with another man during the past 12 months, was designed two years after the first cases of AIDS in five gay Los Angeles men were reported to prevent the transfer of HIV or AIDS from “high-risk communities” through blood transfusions.

And as people recognize the 21st World AIDS Day tomorrow, some blood bank officials are wondering why the FDA has not changed the policy when, according to the American Red Cross, someone in the United States needs blood every two seconds.

“It’s one of those policies that makes you scratch your head,” said Galen Unold, director of recruitment and retention at LifeSouth Community Blood Centers Inc. “But you have to understand why the policy was put in effect. At that time, this group was at the highest risk.”

The FDA insists the current policy that “defers” any sexually active gay man from donating blood is based on policies that assure the protection of the nation’s literal lifeline.

“Although this policy may disqualify some healthy individuals from donating blood, it has proven effective in protecting the nation’s blood supply,” the FDA states on its Web site.

And not everyone disagrees with the FDA.

“I agree with this policy [be]cause HIV or AIDS is high risk for that group, it has nothing to do with discrimination,” Melody Sansbury, a former American Red Cross employee, wrote in an e-mail.

Jenni Schelble’s mouth gaped open, exposing the forkful of Hare Krishna lunch she was eating under the looming shadow of one of LifeSouth’s bloodmobiles on Turlington Plaza, when she found out the ban was still in effect.

“It’s blatant, horrible discrimination,” she said.

“By their logic, are they going to say black women can’t donate blood? Can you imagine if they started saying black women couldn’t donate blood?”

Schelble’s comments allude to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found about half of new AIDS diagnoses in the U.S. during that year were from the black community.

Bobby Davis, HIV/AIDS program coordinator for the Alachua County Health Department, noted that although about half the new diagnoses in 2007 came from the black community, the black community is much larger than the gay community. As a result, the overall HIV/AIDS prevalence within the U.S. black community is still lower than that of the gay community.

After analyzing people by race, the CDC found the black community accounted for 46 percent of those infected in the U.S. with HIV or AIDS.

The CDC also found that men who have sex with men account for 48 percent of those infected with HIV or AIDS in the U.S., according to the same 2006 study.

The numbers in Alachua County seem to follow the same nationwide trend.

Since the ACHD began keeping statistics in 1983, 56 percent of all reported AIDS infections have been from the black community and 41 percent of all reported AIDS transmissions have been through male-to-male sexual contact, according to a June 2009 report.

“It’s really important to protect the nation’s blood supply,” said James Beaudreau, education and policy director for the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. “But we think the policy needs to be re-examined.”

Unold agreed with Beaudreau, as he stressed the importance of a time-based deferral system for men who have sex with men similar to the current policy that allows any person who has had sexual contact with a prostitute more than 12 months ago to donate blood.

“I would feel completely comfortable if the FDA reversed that policy,” Unold said. “I think our blood supply would still be safe.”

The American Red Cross has been pressing the FDA to do just that.

In a 2006 statement with America’s Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks, the American Red Cross stated the current FDA-regulated lifetime deferral for any man who has had sexual contact with another man “is no longer medically and scientifically warranted.”

“We have always supported the use of scientific and rational deferral programs,” American Red Cross spokeswoman April Phillips said. “Given the science we have and given the sophistication we have, the main thing right now is for the sexual deferral policy to be applied equally to everyone and not just certain communities.”

Although blood banks across the country test all donations for infections, the window period for HIV or AIDS, the time after exposure to the infection before it can be detected, and “imperfect testing measures” continue to be the main reasons the FDA has refused to adjust its 1983 policy.    

The GLMA addressed the issue in a 2008 statement to the FDA.

“[The window period] is not a meaningful basis to establish policy either for the population as a whole or for men who have sex with men,” the statement read.

The statement also requested the FDA adopt “social behavior screening rules” to modify the current lifetime deferral program to allow men who have sex with men at a lower risk of infection, including those in monogamous HIV-negative relationships, to donate blood.

Although Unold and Phillips both said the current FDA policy should be reexamined, the pair also addressed other ways a person who is deemed ineligible to donate blood can help with America’s blood shortage, including volunteering at a local blood drive or recruiting donors.

“I understand the frustration, but don’t take it out on a community’s blood supply and the patients that it serves,” Unold said. “If you’re going to boycott the policy, don’t boycott the Blood Mobile. Don’t prevent someone from donating blood. Don’t prevent someone from giving the gift of life.”

Those who wish to get tested for HIV/AIDS should call 352-392-1161 ext. 4281 to schedule a free appointment from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Florida Gym.

Welcome to the discussion.

2 comments:

  • votermouth posted at 10:50 pm on Mon, Nov 30, 2009.

    votermouth Posts: 91

    This ban is a humiliation to the U.S. How ridiculous. It's incredibly sad that lives are lost because we as a country refuse to move away from homophobia.

     
  • Maxworth posted at 11:28 am on Mon, Nov 30, 2009.

    Maxworth Posts: 1

    If they were allowed to donate blood I wouldn't be as afraid of catching AIDS as I would be of catching the Gay.