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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

FDA should end ban on gay blood donations

A pint of donated blood.

A pint of donated blood. Photo Credit: Newsday, 2011 / John Paraskevas

I’ve rarely been accused of being ahead of my time, but in September of 2013 I wrote a column about the lifetime ban on blood donations by gay men and the fact that it needs to end. Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration will kick off a two-day conference on whether the ban should be ended.

Conclusion: I am only ever going to be considered “ahead of my time” in comparison to the federal government, which moves with all the urgency of a 6-year-old headed to bed.

The lifetime ban on male gay donors is zero percent science and 100 percent homophobia. Every medical and scientific group agrees that letting these guys give blood presents essentially no risk.

And if it did present a risk, honestly, I’m not sure a questionnaire asking us whether we did stuff that could cause us to get AIDS would be much protection.

Regardless, I don’t think I can say it much better than I did 15 months ago, so here’s that column.

If you donate blood, you know the questionnaire is so mind-numbing that it's kind of hard to fill in properly. You start checking off boxes so fast that mistakes happen.

Nurse: "So you are pregnant, take intravenous drugs and recently spent a year in Haiti?"

Me: "Did I check all the 'yes' boxes in the 'no' row again?"

Nurse: "Actually, I'm more worried about you checking the 'mad cow disease' box."

Me: "Honestly, I think I just had like a touch of the 24-hour mad cow disease. It was more like 'resentful heifer sniffles.' "

The questions are all on the honor system because the real safeguard of the blood supply isn't our willingness to be honest. After all, what happens in Quogue stays in Quogue. What safeguards the blood supply are the tests run on each donation.

And that's why the lifetime ban on donations by gay and bisexual men needs to end.

The American Medical Association voted to oppose the lifetime ban in June. And in August more than 80 members of Congress wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services decrying the policy.

That ban was imposed 30 years ago, and it made sense. Blood tests to find HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, were not as good as they are now: If such a ban had not been implemented then, faith in the blood supply would have plummeted.

Now, according to a Centers for Disease Control report, the chances of getting HIV through a transfusion are 1.5 million to 1. The only danger is the slight possibility that a donor would have contracted HIV so recently that the screening tests missed it.

Even 1.5 million to 1 is a chance we shouldn't take, and there's no reason we have to, even if we let gay men give.

The risk of having undetected HIV in your blood doesn't come from being a gay man, or even having had a gay "just experimenting" phase in college that, like your quest for a degree, lasted 11 years. It comes from having had such sex recently enough that the virus could sneak past a screening. That period is now just days.

And gay men aren't the only risk. About 28 percent of infections are caused by heterosexual sex, and a quarter of victims are women.

Based on that, it's as reasonable to ban a woman from donating if she's had unprotected sex with a man "even once" as it is to ban a man who's had sex with another man once.

The questionnaire is limited, and it has to be. If we eliminated every person who could possibly have contracted HIV, there wouldn't be anyone left. For instance, the sheet asks women if they've ever slept with a man who has slept with another man, but not if they've had unprotected sex with 188 guys who haven't slept with other men (or could be, gosh, lying about it). Since, as all children of the 1980s know, every time you sleep with a person, you're sleeping with every decision they ever made after seven Zimas, this is relevant.

The Food and Drug Administration says the lifetime ban will be eased "only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients." But again, that ban is not against donating. It's against donating if you're gay and don't check the "I'm so not gay" box. As far as I know, the NSA hasn't figured out a way to track these behaviors yet.

The Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks and America's Blood Centers have told the FDA the ban is medically and scientifically unwarranted. What isn't bigoted and might protect the blood supply more is to ask anyone, gay or straight, who's had unsafe sex over the past three months not to donate.

And just to be sure, anyone who's ever had more than three Zimas at a sitting, or 24 in their lifetime.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



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