Not all blood is equal, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Since 1983, gay and bisexual men have been turned away from giving blood. In 2015, a small, yet significant victory was won when the FDA changed their policy to allow men who have had sex with other men to donate blood. The catch is that those men have to be celibate for an entire year.
Our nation’s new policy still ignores the modern science of HIV-testing and perpetuates the deep-rooted discrimination the LGBT community faces every day. The ban reinforces a double standard that treats even safe sex between monogamous, HIV-negative men as dangerous, sending the message that heterosexuals are not at risk for HIV infection. It earmarks the epidemic as a “gay disease,” an untrue association we have spent thirty-five years unraveling.
Over the summer, the FDA put out a formal request for public comment asking people to submit ideas on the feasibility of moving from the existing time-based deferrals to alternate deferral options, such as the use of individual risk assessment. At GMHC, we fully support individual risk assessment, which would finally create a policy focused on what the donor is actually doing and not simply the gender of who the donor is attracted to.
Given the current blood testing technologies, we believe a deferral period of, at most, three months is an appropriate next step. With older HIV tests, the window period for HIV was as great as three months. Today, the FDA has established Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT) as the industry standard for the testing of blood donations in the United States. Using NAT has reduced the “window period” for pooled donation testing to 6.3 days for HIV. The FDA estimates the risk of HIV infection from a blood transfusion at about one in 1.47 million. In addition, the FDA needs to determine which activities present an unacceptable level of risk if engaged in during three-month deferral period. It’s clear that some activities, such as the sharing of syringes, present an unacceptable level of risk, but where does the consistent use of PrEP and condoms fall on the spectrum of risk?
By denying healthy gay and bisexual men the right to give blood, we are reducing the availability of blood across the country by over 615,000 pints every year. A Williams Institute study found that lifting the ban completely could save up to a million lives annually.
At no point in time was the injustice and antiquity of the blood donation policy more apparent than in the days and weeks following the tragic mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Blood donors were in high demand, and local officials urged those in the area to donate to help the injured victims. Thankfully, Orlando stepped up. Hundreds of men and women lined up at blood centers to aid the wounded except for gay and bisexual men who were unable to donate to their friends and loved ones. They were not missing because they did not want to help. They were missing because of the FDA.
We cannot continue to fuel this discrimination by maintaining an outdated policy that is based on stigma and not science. The FDA has said that this is a top priority for the agency. Friday, Nov. 25 marked the close of a public comment period on the Blood Donor Deferral Policy extended by the FDA. This was a welcome effort, and a first step in the FDA’s vow to hear from the LGBT community and revisit the policy. I expect them to keep their word.
In the same way we fought for marriage equality and are fighting for transgender civil rights, the LGBT community will not give up in our fight for blood equality.
Kelsey Louie is the CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.