- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

For as many as 4 million Americans annually, a safe, reliable supply of blood and blood-related products can be the difference between life and death. So one would want to modify procedures safeguarding that supply only with the assurance that the change wouldn't compromise it. It is therefore troubling that a government advisory panel would consider a proposal to allow individuals at high risk of AIDS homosexual and bisexual men to donate blood that could wind up spreading the disease through transfusions. Good sense prevailed when an advisory panel to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) turned down the proposal last night. It could have been a fatal mistake for many.

Current rules defer indefinitely in effect, ban blood donations from homosexuals and bisexuals on grounds that they pose an unacceptable risk of contamination to blood supplies. It's nothing personal. Other high-risk donors are similarly banned.

As this newspaper's Joyce Price reported Thursday, however, critics, including the American Association of Blood Banks, consider the ban "discriminatory" and hence unwarranted. They have asked the FDA's Blood Products Advisory Committee to relax the ban to allow donations by men who say yes, say they have not had sex with other men for at least a year. Trust them. Their donations would also have to survive nine tests designed to screen out contaminated blood.

The Red Cross, for one, is not enthusiastic about the proposal. Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control, the organization guesses that as many as 60,000 previously banned donors would contribute blood each year. Notwithstanding improved testing methods, lifting the ban "would result in a small but measurable increase in the possibility that an infectious blood unit might be released," Rebecca Haley, interim chief medical officer of the Red Cross, said Thursday.

If the organization could be sure lifting the ban would pose no risk, the Red Cross would support it. In the meantime, Dr. Haley said, it is important to remember that "this is a public health issue. Not a social policy issue." Engineering new, improved attitudes toward homosexuals is not worth the potential loss of life among those whose dependence on blood transfusions is hardship enough.

Already the AIDS virus has taken its toll, both at home and abroad. Ryan White, recall, was a hemophiliac who lived almost two decades thanks to a blood product known as clotting factor. But it ultimately took his life when he contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. Likewise in France, more than 1,000 hemophiliacs came down with AIDS through transfusions in the early 1980s. Hundreds died. There is no need to risk adding to that toll.

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