By Cynthia Armour
City on a Hill Press Reporter
According to the Red Cross Web site, someone in the U.S. needs blood every two seconds. With numbers like that, every donor counts.
The Stevenson Event Center hosted a blood drive last Tuesday, attracting dozens of students for the cause.
However, blood drives remain controversial, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently enforces a policy stating that men who have had sexual relations with another male even once should not give blood. Men who fall under this category are classified as MSM.
The FDA’s policy goes back to over two decades ago, when researchers were stumbling upon HIV. In 1982, the FDA passed the policy stating that MSM could not donate blood, and put it into practice one year later.
In 1984, the FDA developed the tests to screen blood samples for HIV — but kept the MSM policy in place.
Seth Hodge is the college program coordinator for Merrill College. A little over a year ago, he worked at San Jose State University, where he was at the center of a controversial battle to end the blood donation discrimination by banning blood drives from campus.
The UC system has a policy that explicitly bans any university programs and activities that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
“When we sponsor an organization for an activity such as a blood drive, we do just that,” Hodge said. “We violate our own policy.”
Jim Burns, the director of public information for UC Santa Cruz, said that although the campus recognizes that some individuals and organizations question the Red Cross’s screening and policy, “From a health safety point of view, we are not in a position to weigh in.”
However, Patti Childress, the account manager for donor recruitment with the Red Cross, insists that although the policy “may seem illogical, the most important issue is the safety of the blood.”
“Some people take the situation too personally and stop looking at the big picture,” Childress said.
The Red Cross’s eligibility guidelines turn people away for many different reasons, from having a cough or low weight to serious illness. Homosexuality is served on the same plate as intravenous drug use and prostitution, two other practices that result in a permanent ban.
But the issue is personal and discriminatory, insists Hodge.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between lying or not participating if you know you’re healthy. Coming out is a very challenging thing in anyone’s life, and to institutionally be put back in the closet in order to do good…” Hodge shook his head. “It’s not right.”
In 2007, the FDA announced that they were open to reviewing and revisiting scientific evidence concerning the MSM deferral issue. For the AABB, America’s Blood Centers ABC, and the Red Cross, which together organize the majority of all blood drives in the U.S., this means continuing to push for a change in the deferral time period for MSM — from a lifetime ban to a 12-month ban.
The change would align MSM with other deferred groups, such as women who have sex with MSM or anyone recovering from sexually transmitted diseases, who are also deferred for a year.
Still, Hodge sees this proposal as a slap in the face. “It’s asinine. It’s uneducated, and not based on current science. It’s basically saying that if you’ve been in a monogamous relationship for 30 years, you still can’t give blood. It’s banning all gay men in serious relationships.”
For Hodge, the policy and its scientific base are outdated. “It’s like this law in this little mid-western town in the U.S. where you can’t walk backwards while whistling.” That law was written and passed for a reason, he said, but with new medical science, it should be seriously reexamined.
Since HIV was first diagnosed, gay and bisexual men have been leaders in dealing with the challenges of the epidemic. The CDC website recognizes that “gay organizations and activists, through their work, have contributed greatly to many of the guidelines for prevention, treatment, and the care of people living with HIV/AIDS.”
But the FDA quotes the CDC in claiming that “as a group, men who have sex with other men are at a higher risk for transmitting infectious diseases or HIV than are individuals in other risk categories” and that the security cost in accepting MSM as blood donors outweighs the benefits from integrating them as donors.
“It goes to the social stereotype that gay men are promiscuous — there are some, yes, but there are promiscuous heterosexual men as well,” Hodge said. “Your risk factor does not depend on your sexual orientation, but rather on the way you practice it.”
Sehra Bae, a second-year student, put it simply. “No matter where you live or what your background is, if you’re clean and healthy, there’s no reason being gay should stop you from giving blood,” Bae said.
Catalina Sanint, a third-year student, was surprised when she learned of the policy.
“It wouldn’t stop me from donating — if people need blood, they need blood,” she said. “But it’s definitely an eye-opener. Why discriminate since they test the blood anyways?”
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