“Type” is a word frequently tossed around at blood drives. If you’re a man and you’re type O-positive or type AB, your type won’t prevent you from donating blood.
But if you’re a man and your type is tall, dark and handsome, you will run into some problems.
Currently, sexually active gay men are prevented from donating blood, but new research may compel the FDA to revoke this part of the American Red Cross blood donor eligibility regulations. “We have put some data in front of the FDA because we think it’s time to reconsider,” said Jack McGuire, president and CEO of the American Red Cross.
Any male who has had sexual intercourse, even once, with another male since 1977 is ineligible to donate blood due to the risk for HIV infection. The organization defines sexual intercourse as vaginal, oral or anal sex. This means the entire sexually active population of homosexual males is excluded from donating blood.
But the Red Cross doesn’t have the final say in donor eligibility. The Federal Drug Administration and the American Association of Blood Banks determine the criteria that prohibit potential donors from giving blood. The Red Cross and other national associations have spent six years researching the relationship between male-to-male sexual contact and HIV transmission and recently presented the results to the FDA. “The key thing we need to make sure is that anyone healthy who wants to donate can do so,” said McGuire.
Donation standards are meant to protect the people receiving blood from unhealthy blood, not to discriminate against those who want to give. All blood is prescreened for HIV and other bloodborne pathogens before someone receives a transfusion, but the FDA’s eligibility requirements are the first step in preventing unhealthy blood from being collected. “They look at things in blood that could potentially harm someone,” said McGuire.
Many gay and lesbian organizations consider male-to-male sex as an exclusionary rule for blood donation as a form of discrimination. “It’s very much like racial profiling. We all know it’s bad, but we continue to do it,” advertising sophomore Jonathan Stremsterfer said. “Middle America has this thought that AIDS is a gay disease. That’s just not true; heterosexuals can contract HIV just as easily.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 13,000 Michigan residents are living with HIV or AIDS. Men who have had sex with men make up 47 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS in the state and male-to-male sexual contact is the leading cause of HIV in every age demographic except from birth to age 12.
The Michigan Department of Community Health says any person can contract HIV by having unprotected intercourse with another infected person no matter their sex or sexual orientation. The Olin Health Center’s Health Education Services urge students to get tested. “HIV doesn’t have a high prevalence at MSU,” said Erin Williston, an Olin health educator and HIV/AIDS counselor. “However, if you have unprotected sex, you should get tested. Use a condom every time you have sex, start to finish; even oral sex. It’s the best line of defense other than abstinence.”
But gay men who follow these health precautions are still prohibited from donating blood. The American Red Cross requires donors to answer questions before any donation. The questions range from their current health and medications to sexual activity. They also screen all blood donations for HIV, and if a positive sample is found, the donor is notified and is taken out of the donor pool for life.
The Red Cross imposes other restrictions on donors as well. “People can donate every 56 days. The 56 days is to make sure they receive adequate time to regain the blood so that we’re not farming it,” said McGuire. “If they donate for special things, like platelets, they can donate more often.”
The American Red Cross does not accept applicants who do not fit the criteria of a healthy blood donor. The criteria can pertain to permanent health criteria as well as temporary. For example, the Red Cross will not allow people to donate blood until one year after they return from a foreign country that has a risk of malaria. People who have been in England for more than three months are ineligible for donations the rest of their life. This demographic includes McGuire himself, who lived in the UK for five years. This is because Mad Cow disease can lay dormant in a person’s body for the rest of their life.
Even if they show no symptoms, their blood could pass the disease onto the person receiving the blood. While these reasons for blood denial make sense to the public, others have caused some controversy for the Red Cross. “We ask some explicit questions about sexual behavior,” said McGuire. “Some parents do not want their children asked these questions. Also, certain religious communities are likely to oppose being asked such explicit things.”
The questions include the following:
-Are you a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977?
-Have you ever taken money, drugs or other payment for sex since 1977?
-Have you had sexual contact in the past 12 months with anyone described above?
Stremsterfer is an openly gay student and considers the current eligibility requirement to be a clear form of discrimination. He said the question insinuates that all gay men have AIDS. However, the actual act of male-to-male sexual contact is what the Red Cross considers high risk for HIV infection. The question only refers to homosexuals who have had sex with another male. “I gave blood in high school. I’ve yet to give blood in college,” said Stremsterfer. “When I gave blood I wasn’t out, so it wasn’t a factor for me.”
According to Williston, less than 0.01 percent of reported MSU students contracted HIV last year. That does not mean students should not worry. “We know that HIV is prevalent in all communities,” said Williston. “HIV does not discriminate. It affects all classes, races and sexual orientations.”
Intravenous drug users are the second most demographic for HIV/AIDS infection. They are also excluded from being donors. Additionally, blacks make up only 14 percent of Michigan’s population yet 47 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS. “Prevalence rates are going down in what everyone considered the predominate HIV group: white homosexual males,” said Williston. “We are seeing an increase in other groups, especially African-American women.”
Lower income communities are also often at risk. “People at lower incomes have higher rates of HIV because they are less educated and have less access to resources about protection,\” said Williston.
Williston says the questions about HIV risk practices should be more specific to safe or unsafe sex, similar to the question about unsafe drug use. The questions could ask if the person had intercourse with or without a condom on and possibly ask if they have been tested for HIV. Revisions to the eligibility requirements would allow a broader spectrum of people to donate blood to the Red Cross. They would single out unsafe practices as opposed to alienating entire groups that may or may not be safe.
Whether or not the FDA decides to update the blood donor requirements, the gay and lesbian community has the support of the American Red Cross and other health organizations. Stremterfer and others who feel similar welcome the Red Cross’s support. They say it’s time to make a change and stop discrimination. “I’d like to have the option,” said Stremsterfer. “I feel we all should be equal. There should be no reason I cannot give blood.”