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Ban on gay blood donors upheld

/ Source: contributor

A government health committee Friday recommended not changing the ban on gay men donating blood but also called for new research on alternative policies, citing flaws in the current rules.

Gay men have been prohibited from giving blood since 1985. But momentum to change the ban has grown recently, with advocacy groups, blood-collection organizations and members of Congress calling for the Food and Drug Administration to revise the donation rules.

The Health and Human Services Committee, in its recommendations, noted that current policy permits some potentially high-risk blood donations and prevents some possible low-risk donations. But the panel said existing research isn’t adequate to justify lifting the ban. The FDA has final say over the blood rules.

Gay rights groups said the blood donation policy discriminates against gay and bisexual men. They point out a heterosexual man or a woman having sex with an HIV-positive partner is restricted from giving blood for one year from that contact, while gay men face a lifetime ban.

The HHS committee listened to often-emotional testimony from people supporting ending the ban and those pushing the status quo or more incremental change.

Nathan Schaefer of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an HIV/AIDS organization, said most gay men practice safe sex and are HIV-negative, and should be considered a low-risk donor group. The HIV/AIDS organization, which has pushed for revised rules, noted Italy and Spain screen for high-risk behaviors rather than sexual orientation.

And Lee Storrow, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the committee that he gave blood in high school. Now, after having sex with a male, he can no longer donate, he said. “I hope I can one day donate blood again,’’ Storrow said.

The Red Cross and other blood-collection organizations support a one-year ”deferral,” or waiting period, on donations after male-to-male sex, saying the current ban is scientifically unwarranted.

A one-year deferral period on blood donations by men who have had sex with another man would yield an estimated 89,000 additional pints annually, according to a study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

The U.S. periodically has blood shortages, but the testimony at the two-day meeting focused primarily on the safety of the supply, not availability.

Several countries, including Canada, have a similar ban as the U.S.

The American Plasma Users Coalition, representing people who depend on the blood supply to maintain health, urged additional research, forecasting that revisions in the donation rules eventually will be made.

But the coalition’s Mark Skinner also said, “It’s not about blood supply; it’s about blood safety ... Ultimately the end-user bears 100 percent of the risk.’’

He said, “The fact that it’s discriminatory does not mean it’s wrong if it’s in the interest of public health.’’

Added Corey Dubin, a hemophiliac infected with HIV from a tainted blood product: “This is daily question of survival.’’

Andy Miller is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist. His work has been published by WebMD, AOL's WalletPop and AARP. He was a longtime staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.