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Panel studies lifting ban on gay men donating blood

Every four months, Gio Ciaccio lies to workers at the American Red Cross office on 7th and Spring Garden streets so he can donate blood.

Every four months, Gio Ciaccio lies to workers at the American Red Cross office on 7th and Spring Garden streets so he can donate blood.

"Basically, I have to tell them that I only have sex with women," said Ciaccio, 33.

Ciaccio, who is gay, lies during the blood-drive questionnaire because any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 is barred from donating blood.

But Ciaccio and others may not be banned from donating blood for much longer as the Federal Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability is set to reconsider the policy tomorrow and Friday at a hearing in Rockville, Md.

The Food and Drug Administration put the policy into place in 1983 as a safety measure due to the lack of technology to screen HIV in the blood supply.

Women who have sex with men who have sex with other men (MSM) are deferred from donating for at least a year since the initial sexual contact.

"I think the whole thing is ridiculous," Ciaccio said. "It should be a nonissue."

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights activists are hopeful the committee recommends the FDA lifts the ban on MSM donors."We are in a much more sophisticated point in time than to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Equality Forum. "There is certainly no problem considering the recipient [of the blood] first, but there's an assumption that all gay men are HIV-positive and that's a fallacious assumption."

Technological advancements since the ban went into effect allow experts to properly test the blood donation supply for HIV. The only catch is that HIV is undetectable during the two-week period after it is contracted.

"That's the risk for any blood donor, which is why they screen everybody," says Dr. Robert Winn, executive medical director of the Mazzoni Center, Philadelphia's LGBT health center. "Having this ban for one risk category doesn't make any sense."

A study conducted by the American Red Cross found that blood donations from those between 25 and 49 fell about 10 percent in 2008, while donations from repeat donors 25-39 dropped more than 40 percent.

The Williams Institute On Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law issued a study this month that says lifting the blood ban could add 219,000 pints yearly. That, according to the study, would increase the nation's blood supply by 1.4 percent and also make more than 900 organs available for donation.

Gary Gates, the study's co-author, said that every pint of donated blood is split into three components, meaning the 219,000 pints of blood could be used in about 650,000 medical treatments.

But, according to Dr. Jay Brooks, professor of pathology at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, the country already collects 15 million pints annually.

"You're not getting much blood, but you are getting an increased risk of [contaminated blood]," said Brooks, who says he supports gay rights.

According to the CDC, 64 percent of men living with HIV in 2006 were MSM.

Winn, however, notes that blood banks "test every unit of blood that comes in, anyway," and doesn't think there will be a safety issue.

The American Red Cross and the American Association of Blood Banks also disagree with the lifetime ban of MSM donors.

The American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter said in a statement that the ban "is unwarranted and donor deferral criteria should be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections."