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Effort mounts to lift ban on gay male blood donors

Sandra Johnson of North Plainfield gives blood with her daughters Gabriela 3 and Kaitlyn 6 beside her. She is speaking with Donna Morrissey of the American Red Cross Blood Services at the The NY Giants and Red Cross 3rd Annual Blood Drive at MetLife Stadium Sunday Aug. 25, 2013.   (AP Photo/The Record, Chris Pedota)

Sandra Johnson of North Plainfield gives blood with her daughters Gabriela 3 and Kaitlyn 6 beside her. She is speaking with Donna Morrissey of the American Red Cross Blood Services at the The NY Giants and Red Cross 3rd Annual Blood Drive at MetLife Stadium Sunday Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/The Record, Chris Pedota) Purchase photo reprints »

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Adrian Alarcon was just 17 and out as a gay man to his friends and family on the day he queued up to the blood donor bus at Lake Worth High two years ago. On his mind was his grandmother, who needed a blood transfusion.

So he proudly filled out the standard form with the intention of saving someone else’s grandma.

But one answer to one question barred him from giving blood that day or any other for the rest of his life - as it has for millions of others.

“From 1977 to the present have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?” Yes.

Before Alarcon was even born, when AIDS was a newly discovered scourge in the American blood supply and HIV testing was a wished-for tool, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was pressed to find a way to ensure the safety of transfusions.

One thing that became clear early: The blood-borne disease was rampant among gay men. And by 1983, the FDA had adopted policies banning all men who have had sex with other men from the donor pool.

Its current policy has been in place since 1992. Dozens of countries followed suit, erecting lifetime bans against gay blood donors.

But by the time Alarcon arrived on the steps of the blood mobile, a lot had changed.

He was so outraged when he was turned away, that the next time that bus pulled up to the school, he got his mom’s permission to leave class, go to his local community center and get a rapid HIV test.

“I went back and showed her (the woman manning the bus). I’m healthy. I brought the test results - signed, official,” Alarcon recalled. But she still barred him from even getting on the bus.

U.S. Congressman Ted Deutch, D-Fla., is among more than 80 lawmakers who this month signed a letter to the Obama administration, asking it to change the “outdated” policy.

It’s not the first such letter to make this plea. But this year, others have joined the push.

In June, the American Medical Association passed a resolution opposing the lifetime ban as “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

And an organization formed in March by a nursing student in Orlando called Banned4Life is raising awareness as well. It is promoting local blood drives, including one that was held in Miami on Sunday and a nationwide one in October in which gay men ask others to donate in their names.

Deutch and others say they can feel the momentum shifting, perhaps riding a wave that built with the Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage.

“What I think most people miss here is when this ban was enacted there wasn’t a test to even identify HIV,” Deutch said. “Today we have one. It’s highly accurate, easily accessible - and there’s a shortage of blood donors. No healthy American should be turned away from donating blood.”

One of the worst blood shortages in the country’s history struck in 2000. Hospitals in Philadelphia, Atlanta and Los Angeles postponed elective surgeries.

At the time, it was reported that hospitals combined needed 80,000 units of blood daily and the Red Cross was able to deliver only 36,000.

By 2006, the American Association of Blood Banks, Red Cross and America’s blood centers told the FDA they believed that the lifetime ban for men who have had sex with other men “is medically and scientifically unwarranted.”

Each year it has pressed for changes, as demand for blood grows and donations continue to be limited - less than 10 percent of Americans donate annually, according to America’s Blood Centers.

The FDA reviewed its policy in 2010 and has held firm, though it has put the issue to further study.

“The FDA’s deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV,” according to a statement posted on its website.

While gay men represent about 2 percent of the country’s population, it is the segment most severely affected by HIV.

The government reports that 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and 77 percent of diagnosed HIV infections among men were attributed to sexual contact between men.

That argument falls short for Blake Lynch, the Orlando nursing student who founded Banned4Life after discovering he couldn’t fulfill a plan to donate. He formulated that plan after hearing the story of his classmate, Emmy, who relies on transfusions to treat her sickle cell anemia.

“If a woman has had a sexual encounter with a gay male, then she is banned for 12 months. I’m banned for life,” Lynch said. “That’s discrimination.”

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