Ramping up their fight to overturn a ban dating back to 1985 and the emergence of the AIDS crisis, gay-rights organizers are preparing an unprecedented "national gay blood drive" Friday to urge the federal government to change its donation policy and allow some openly gay and bisexual men to give blood.
None of the thousands of men expected to show up to blood donation centers is likely to be allowed to donate, but gay-rights activists are eager to show that the ban prevents countless units of healthy blood from being accepted into the blood banks.
This is "a demonstration of peace," said Ryan James Yezak, organizer of Friday's national gay blood drive.
Banning gay and bisexual men as blood donors promotes a blood shortage, creates a negative stereotype about the men and "is discrimination based on sexual orientation," said Mr. Yezak, a gay filmmaker.
The blood drive — just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a federal law banning recognition of same-sex marriage and a May decision by Boy Scouts of America leaders to admit openly gay youths to their program — is the latest front in an expanding national push for gay equality.
The Food and Drug Administration's blood donation policy says men who have had sex with men (MSM) even once since 1977 cannot be donors. Lesbians and bisexual women are free to donate blood unless they are ineligible for other reasons.
The policy stems from the 1980s, when thousands of hemophiliacs mysteriously began to fall ill.
Eventually, it was discovered that the AIDS virus was being given to them via blood transfusions. By the time HIV tests for blood were put into place, more than half of hemophiliacs — including 18-year-old Ryan White — had died of the disease. Another high-profile transfusion victim, tennis champion Arthur Ashe, worked to educate the public on AIDS before he, too, died of the disease.
Those deaths and others fueled public fears of accidental blood exposure in the 1990s. After basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced in 1991 that he had HIV/AIDS, some players refused to take the court with him.
In recent years, federal officials have discussed changing the MSM blood donation ban, but affirmed it — even though it was a "suboptimal" policy — in 2010, pending the outcome of new research.
The reason for keeping the MSM ban for now is that there is a high, and growing, incidence for HIV infection among MSM, especially in those younger than 24, the FDA said on its website. In 2010, "MSM accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S.," it noted.
But gay-rights activists say there is a scientifically sound way to change the donation policy and permit some gay and bisexual men to become blood donors.
Gay blood drive
On Friday, gay and bisexual men will have specific locations in more than 50 cities to offer to give blood.
They are expected to go first to an HIV testing unit — some of which will be parked near the blood donation center — and get rapid-response HIV testing, which is performed with an oral swab. Within 30 minutes, each man will receive his results. Those with negative HIV tests will attempt to donate their blood.
"As each donor is rejected, their test result will be collected, compiled, and delivered to the FDA — visually conveying to them on a national level how much blood the gay community could contribute to the blood supply should they lift their current policy," Mr. Yezak said on the website gayblooddrive.com.
The American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and AABB, formerly the American Association of Blood Banks, said in a joint statement that they appreciated the organizers' interest in raising awareness about the ban, but "we are concerned that the event has the potential to disrupt blood center operations."
However, blood centers in more than 50 cities are participating in the gay blood drive, including American Red Cross centers in the District; Boston; Philadelphia; Nashville, Tenn.; and Omaha, Neb.
The Gay Men's Health Crisis is providing the HIV testing unit outside the New York Blood Center on East 67th Street in Manhattan, said Jason Cianciotto, public policy director for GMHC.
"We think that it's an important opportunity to educate the public about why the lifetime ban on men who have sex with men giving blood is outdated and unscientific, and needs to be changed," Mr. Cianciotto said.
The GMHC wants to see the policy changed so that gay men who are sexually active but monogamous — had only one male sex partner in the past year — can donate blood.
People should be screened for "high-risk" behavior, regardless of sexual orientation, Mr. Cianciotto said. Also, donor-deferral periods should reflect the advanced state testing technology — people may need to be deferred for only a few weeks, not months or years, he said.
GMHC's views differ from policy changes adopted in other countries: Canada recently joined the United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan, Australia and other countries that permit MSM to donate blood, but only if they abstained from sex with a man for one or more years.
Mr. Cianciotto rejected such no-sex deferral policies as having "the same effect as a lifetime ban."
No changes are imminent in the FDA's MSM donor policy, but federal officials are gathering evidence that might allow them to change it, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said this week. Some research results are expected this year, and the next public meeting on the MSM blood donor policy will be in December, she said.
Calls for change come from several arenas.
In 2010, dozens of members of Congress led by Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, urged the FDA to end its "antiquated" policy on MSM blood donations.
"The blood banks themselves have said this lifetime ban is medically unwarranted and want to see it changed," Rep. Mike Quigley, Illinois Democrat, said this week, referring to 2010 statements made by the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and AABB.
In June, the American Medical Association also joined the chorus, saying the MSM lifetime ban was "discriminatory and not based on sound science."
Others say there is no reason to change the policy.
"Nothing has changed with the medical situation, which is that men who have sex with men are at an extremely elevated risk of contracting HIV" and "this is a serious risk for the blood supply," said Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council. The issue is not about sexual orientation; it's about health, he said.
Groups representing hemophiliacs and other recipients of blood and plasma products say that "blood safety" must be the priority in any policy change on donations.
The lifetime-deferral requirement for MSM "is an important issue that needs consideration," said Kimberly Haugstad, executive director of the Hemophilia Federation of America. "We also believe further research and studies are needed" to ensure that decisions "are made based on the safety of patients," she said.
Studies have consistently found that even if MSM who had not had sex with a man in a year were permitted to donate, there would be more HIV-infected blood units in the system. In one federal study, this translated into additional 2,700 HIV-infected units in a year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that if MSM policies were changed, there would be "small, but not zero," risks for more HIV-infected blood units, and "little gain, in terms of additional donations."
Permanent deferral of MSM "therefore continues to be endorsed as the default position based on the principle of risk reduction to 'as low as reasonably achievable,'" WHO said in its 2012 guidelines on blood donation.
In the U.S., the rate of HIV infections by blood transfusion has become rare — about one in 1.5 million — because of the numerous rules on blood donation and improved testing of the blood supply, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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