Let Gay Men Donate Blood

Donating blood

We’ve long argued to our friends – often while queuing in blood donation lines – that
it makes no sense for the Food and Drug Administration to continue banning the blood of gay men. In the 1980s, the FDA stopped taking donations from any man who had sex with another man since 1977, concluding the risk of transfusing HIV-infected blood was just too high. (Anyone who has had sex with a prostitute or had sex in exchange for drugs is similarly banned.)

But in this era of medical technology, blood in screened not once but twice for HIV. Sure, there is still a small percentage of HIV infections through transfusion (estimated at 1 per 2 million), but the chances of that occurring are far too small to continue banning the gay community from performing a civic responsibility. There’s also the little matter of straight men and women carrying “the gay disease” as well, though their numbers may be fewer.

Which is why we’re pleased to see today’s Los Angeles Times editorial, which backs the American Red Cross’ appeal to lift the ban. Blood banks, meanwhile, are also in favor of lifting the ban, so long as there are some more mild restrictions in place.

The blood banks have recommended that gay men who haven’t had sex in a year be allowed to donate.

A temporary ban for gay men would still be needed. There’s a window during which an individual can be infected with HIV and not test positive. And gay men in the U.S. have a much higher incidence of HIV infections than the rest of the population. So it’s necessary to exclude those who have recently had sex, even with condoms. But the new tests can detect the virus within 11 days, on average, after infection. A ban of several weeks or months should be sufficient.

Another issue is that current guidelines fail to adequately take donor behavior into account. Questionnaires don’t routinely ask about risky behavior, so even promiscuous heterosexuals can donate. Is blood from a monogamous, HIV-negative gay man more unsafe than blood from a heterosexual man who is sexually active with multiple partners?

Meanwhile, we’ve continued to donate blood to the American Red Cross, brushing past a certain checkbox on the questionnaire. We get regular HIV tests; we know what is, and isn’t, in our blood. Though when we did some traveling in malaria-infested countries, sure, we let them know about that (and we “excused” from donating blood for six months).

So what’s the proper course of action? Keep the ban? Lift it entirely? Or go the middleground route, relaxing the ban while still keeping certain restrictions for gay men in place, and/or adding additional background information to the questionnaire?

Let gay men donate blood [LAT]