- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2013

Gay activists are stepping up their calls for the federal government to change its blood-donation policy and permit gay men give blood under some circumstances.

Currently, a man who has ever had sex with a man since 1977 is indefinitely deferred from donating blood.

Groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and Banned4Life.org are supporting petition drives to lift the blood-donor ban for gay men, noting that the American Red Cross, American Association of Blood Banks and America’s Blood Centers support such a reform.

The blood banks have signaled support for a new policy that would permit healthy gay men to donate blood if they had not had sexual contact with another man for 12 months.

GMHC would prefer a policy that permits donations from healthy gay men who have had only one sex partner in the last year.

This would allow for “equal treatment of all potential blood donors,” GMHC said.

All U.S. blood donors must pass a lengthy list of health, travel and behavioral exclusions, several of which carry indefinite or permanent deferrals. Being HIV-positive is one of several health conditions that merits an automatic deferral.

Lesbians have never been banned from giving blood unless they met other exclusion criterion.

Federal response

For several years, federal agencies, including the Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability (ACBSA), have held meetings on changing the donor policy for men who have sex with men (MSM).

In 2010, the ACBSA voted to maintain the current MSM policy, but suggested that research projects be used to “create a road map forward,” as one panelist put it.

Advocates for blood-using groups support new research, but have urged federal officials to keep the current deferral policy for gay men until fresh data are available about what would happen if donor policies are changed.

Donor-deferral policies are intended to protect blood recipients, and shouldn’t be seen as a judgment on individual donors, say leaders of groups for plasma users and hemophiliacs.

In May 2012, an ACBSA official said that several studies were under consideration, and a request for information had been issued for a pilot study on alternative donor deferral criteria for MSM.

However, comments on that pilot study are still under review, and “no decision has been made yet to proceed with the pilot,” a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said Friday.

Obama words energizing

This month, GMHC policy analyst Robert Valadez told Edge Boston, a leading gay publication, that President Obama’s supportive words in the State of the Union speech are energizing efforts to change the MSM blood policy.

“Now is the time to strike, while the iron is hot,” he told Edge Boston.

“We know that the blood supply is very safe, and the likelihood that you will contract any known pathogen is very minimal,” Mr. Valadez added. “And although there are other high-risk groups for HIV, like African-Americans, we are not asking for a permanent ban on anyone, but rather equitable treatment across the board.”

Projected outcomes of ban change

The Williams Institute at University of California-Los Angeles has already crunched some numbers about how a MSM policy change could affect donations.

If MSM were permitted to donate if they had not had sex with a man for 12 months, around 53,000 men would be eligible and likely to donate, said the 2010 study. This would result in nearly 90,000 more pints of blood donated each year.

If a five-year abstinence policy was adopted, it would result in about 42,000 new donors and 71,218 new pints of blood each year, the institute said.

“This could help meet the need of blood-supply shortages,” the GMHC said.

Opponents of changing the MSM ban have pointed to a 2006 report that showed that a change in the ban would increase the number of “bad units” in the blood supply.

If MSM were deferred for five years after last sex with a man, about 1,430 HIV-infected units would enter the blood supply in the first year of the new policy, Dr. Andrew I. Dayton told a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel in 2006.

If the deferral period was 12 months, the number of infected units would “about double,” to 2,780, he said.

MSM have an HIV prevalence “60 times higher than the general population, 800 times higher than first-time blood donors, and 8,000 times higher than repeat donors,” the FDA currently says on its webpage on MSM policy.

Meanwhile, a gay college student who was turned away from a blood drive this month has created a campaign to overturn the FDA policy.

“Our blood can save lives. Our hearts can change the world,” said Blake Lynch, a nursing student at Seminole State College of Florida and founder of Banned4Life.org.

“The FDA bans gay men from donating blood. We won’t stand for that,” his website says.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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