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Seeing Red: FDA’s move to loosen blood donor ban meets opposition

By Lauren Wilson / For The Pitt News

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A federal recommendation that would lift the ban on men who have had sex with other men from donating blood has left members of the LGBTQ community dissatisfied. 

The Food and Drug Administration issued a statement on Dec. 23 announcing recommendations to loosen the guidelines for men who have had sex with other men to donate blood, meeting support of American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) and America’s Blood Centers. The FDA would implement the updated guidelines sometime this year after the public and stakeholders have had time to comment.

The recommendation would replace the FDA’s 31-year-old lifetime ban on men who have had sex with other men from donating, which stemmed from the prevalence of HIV and AIDS within the population.

The Red Cross, the AABB and America’s Blood Centers said in their statement that the FDA’s recommendations are “consistent with the position of our organizations that the current lifetime deferral is unwarranted,” but that it would take time to implement them.

“Our organizations strongly support the use of rational, scientifically based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities,” the statement said.

Brandon Benjamin, a former president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, said the Red Cross should instead pose questions — not exclusive to gay or bisexual men — regarding high-risk behaviors that could cause disease.

“It’s strange, because they think it’s progress,” Benjamin said.

The FDA’s recommendations are based on “available scientific evidence,” according to a statement by Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, with help from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Delta Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based LGBT advocacy organization, isn’t satisfied with the new regulations, either. 

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s still discriminatory,” said Chris Bryan, director of marketing and development at the Delta Foundation.

Before donating blood, prospective donors must complete the AABB Donor History Questionnaire, which is mandated by the FDA. The questionnaire surveys respondents’ health history to ensure their blood is free of diseases. 

Nine of the 29 questions ask specifically about HIV and AIDS, and two of them ask specifically about men who have had sexual contact with other men.

One question asks: “Female donors: Since your last donation, have you had sexual contact with a male who has ever had sexual contact with another male? (Males: check “I am male.”).”

If a woman answers yes to this question, she is deferred from donating for one year because “HIV and other diseases may be transmitted through sexual contact.” 

Another question asks: “Male donors: Since your last donation, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once? (Females: Check “I am female.”)” 

The Red Cross already has a one-year donation deferral period for other groups, including intravenous recreational drug users and cancer patients, and a six-month deferral period for others who have recently gotten a tattoo or piercing. 

The American Medical Association said it supports the FDA’s recommendations.

“It’s important that national policy on blood donations be based on sound science. The AMA will continue working with the FDA to ensure that population risks are evaluated consistently and without discrimination,” the association said in an email.

Benjamin said he is skeptical of the scientific basis for the new policy.

According to Benjamin, modern blood testing technology can detect the virus within months, and the scientific reason for the waiting period is still unclear. The revised policy would still reinforce stereotypes, he said, from when AIDs emerged more than 30 years ago in the United States, affecting a large population of the gay community, which was the basis for lifetime restriction, he said.

“There still is a fear, and these kinds of policies perpetuate that fear,” Benjamin said. “The question trivializes the community. It says that we are in desperate need of blood, but your blood is dirty.”

According to Allie McCarthy, current president of Rainbow Alliance, the new recommendations aren’t significantly more favorable than the outdated policy, but will hopefully propel future progress.

“I’m glad people are at least hearing the arguments [that the old guidelines were unfair], so it may be a good foot in the door,” McCarthy said.

She pointed out that all blood is screened, regardless of sexual orientation. 

“It’s really hurtful to the community that it’s still associated with HIV,” McCarthy said. 

As of now, Rainbow Alliance hasn’t taken a stance on the new recommendations, McCarthy said.

When the new recommendations are implemented later this year, Benjamin said he will not be lining up to donate blood.

“Once they finally recognize the dignity and the responsibility of men who have sex with men to have safe sex just like everybody else, then I’ll want to do it,” he said. 

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Seeing Red: FDA’s move to loosen blood donor ban meets opposition