Published in The Oklahoma Daily on November 13, 2012
Our View: Blood donation eligibility should be based on health, not identity.
If you’ve ever wanted to donate blood but didn’t, it was probably because you dislike needles or happened to be sick at the time.
But a certain group of Americans cannot donate blood even if they choose to — and it’s not because of a health problem or a phobia.
Since 1983, gay and bisexual men (and any other men who have had sex with other men) have been banned from ever donating blood.
This decision was made in response to the AIDS epidemic. But the country has come a long way since the days of calling AIDS a “gay disease.”
While the AIDS virus did strike the gay community first, it is not limited to that population. Other U.S. populations see new HIV infections at similarly horrifying rates and also exhibit behavior that puts them at risk for infection.
What about heterosexuals who have many partners or unprotected sex? Someone with that history is free to donate.
Even those who have served as or had sex with a prostitute — behavior that certainly puts one at risk for infection — only have to wait one year before donating blood.
And if you visit a known malaria outbreak zone? You still only have to wait a year.
That’s because malaria, like HIV, only takes so long to show up in test results or as symptoms.
A yearlong delay in donating would still be four times the amount of time necessary for HIV to become detectable — most instances can be detected within a matter of days after infection.
And that’s where the ban on gay and bisexual men becomes truly irrational: All donated blood in the U.S. is tested for infectious diseases before it can be released to hospitals. That includes testing for HIV.
The Red Cross estimates that the current risk for transmission of HIV through a blood transfusion is approximately 1 in 2 million. That’s because of reliable and consistent testing, not because the U.S bans millions of potential donors.
One conservative study from the University of California Los Angeles found that if men who had sex with men were allowed to donate after a one-year period, more than 53,000 new donors likely would make more than 89,000 additional blood donations.
Given the periodic shortages in the blood supply (the most recent of which was just this summer) and the need for additional blood in times of crisis (like the recent Hurricane Sandy), these new donors could save thousands of lives.
Of course, even the yearlong ban is not ideal. Although it would be a step in the right direction, it fails to attack the root of the problem: That high-risk heterosexuals may donate freely, while even low-risk homosexuals are banned for life.
It would be far more rational to restrict donors based on past sexual history and other behaviors that put them at risk for HIV.
And those donors would not need to be blocked from the blood pool — their donations could be held for the three-month incubation period recommended by the FDA for the most accurate testing.
But a one-year ban is a good place to start. Argentina, Australia, Japan, Hungary, the United Kingdom and Sweden all have instituted one-year bans for these donors.
The HIV Medicine Association, the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks all urged the U.S. to follow suit.
In ignoring these calls, the FDA has made it clear it is operating on stubborn prejudice and old myths. When the ban on these donations was first instituted, the medical community knew very little about the new and deadly disease of HIV. But that no longer is the case.
The U.S. cannot afford to continue giving in to baseless fear. The blood donation policy, like any medical policy, should be based on evidence and scientific fact — not cultural perceptions.
Fortunately, you can do something right here on campus to change this harmful policy. Give blood today, but stop by the South Oval first to sign a petition urging a more rational blood-donation policy.
Even if you can’t donate, take a few minutes to sign the petition and help ensure there always will be enough blood to cover the more than 44,000 daily blood transfusions in the U.S.