JANUARY IS National Blood Donor Month. So I'd like to do my part by inviting you to open your veins for a good cause.
Unless you're a gay male. In which case, please stay home.
No matter how dearly you'd like to donate, I'm sorry, but there can be no post-donation cookies and juice for you.
No cute, blood-drop lapel pin proclaiming "First-time donor!"
No Band-Aid to remind you all day of the selfless thing you did for others.
I have nothing against you. I just want to spare you the embarrassment of finding out, wherever you attempt to donate, that your blood isn't wanted.
And that's a damn shame. Because our need for blood far exceeds what the American Red Cross Penn-Jersey Region is able to collect.
Despite 23 Bloodmobile events held here daily, and multiple donations made at eight fixed-site collection centers, last year we still had to import nearly 200,000 additional units of blood from outside the area to meet our densely populated region's need for that life-saving red stuff.
At least we're not the only people turning away gay male donors. Turns out, they're not wanted anywhere in this country.
"We get calls from gay men all the time who are angry when they find out they're not allowed to donate," says Chris Englerth, marketing manager for the American Red Cross Penn-Jersey Region. "We tell them that we think it's wrong, too. But we don't make the rules."
The Food and Drug Administration establishes the criteria about who may donate blood and who must "defer" donating, either temporarily or permanently.
The list prohibits donors "who have AIDS or have ever had a positive HIV test, or if you have done something that puts you at risk for becoming infected with HIV." Those considered "at risk" for getting infected include any "male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977."
Yes, even once.
"We've been fighting this for years," says Mark Segal, editor of the Philadelphia Gay News. "If you're a gay male who has been in a monogamous relationship for 30 years, you're still considered a greater risk [to the blood pool] than if you're a promiscuous heterosexual who has had hundreds of partners for 30 years.
"Things have changed, but the FDA hasn't changed with the times."
Indeed, back in 2006, a coalition of heavy-hitters in the blood-collection world implored the FDA to accept that blood-screening tests had become so sensitive and precise, it was no longer necessary to ban blood donations from gay men - a ban instituted in the height of the AIDS crisis, in 1983.
The American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and the American Association of Blood Banks (now known only as AABB) asked that the deferral due to male-to-male sex be re-examined, given that tests can now detect the presence of HIV within 10 to 21 days of exposure.
A one-year ban on donation following high-risk sexual activity, then, would more than cover that window.
But the FDA is standing by its permanent ban, which frustrates Dr. Steven Kleinman, the AABB's senior medical advisor.
"We think the year-long ban is more than reasonable," says Kleinman.
"The FDA doesn't. We find their policy discriminatory, scientifically marginal and unfair."
There are people who will read this column and wonder what the big deal is. They'll say that gay males have a higher risk of exposure to HIV than any other group and therefore should be permanently excluded from donating blood.
But here's the thing: All donated blood is tested for HIV, because the collection agency can't rely on all donors to be truthful or even well-informed about their sexual activity.
For example, if you're a woman whose husband is currently having gay sex, and you don't know about it, how would you know that your blood donation violates the FDA's rule that you not donate under such circumstances?
That's why every drop of blood is tested. There's simply no way for a blood-collection agency to know for sure that donors have given accurate answers on their blood-donor questionnaire.
Not just answers about sexual behavior, but about other illnesses and medical conditions that impact the safety of the blood pool.
It's time for the FDA to come up to speed on this. Our need for donated blood is too great. *
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