FDA’s move to end gay blood ban: step forward or misstep?

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HOUSTON, TX--  For more than 30 years, gay and bisexual men have been banned from donating blood in the U.S.  Of course, it all started with the AIDS crisis, but haven't we realized yet that it's not just gay men who can spread HIV and AIDS? It's anyone engaging in risky behaviors, like unprotected sex with strangers or sharing drug needles.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration recommends that any man who has had sex with a man since 1977 be deferred indefinitely, meaning they cannot give blood at all. But they are now considering dialing that back a bit, saying a man who has had sex with a man would only be deferred for 12 months after his last sexual encounter.

"While it certainly represents a step in the right direction," says Kristopher Sharp, a Houston human rights activist, "I think most advocates would suggest that the FDA needs to move towards policies that focus more on individual risks rather than on sexual orientation."

Kelly Young, CEO of AIDS Foundation Houston, agrees, "By changing the rules, instead of just eliminating the rules, just creates more confusion. And it also continues to perpetuate some of the stigma that's related to HIV and AIDS." She deals with that stigma daily, like families' outdated and false ideas that you can get HIV by touching, kissing or drinking from the glass of someone with the virus.

"It is a blood pathogen," she points out, "so it's something that has to have blood to blood contact or bodily fluids." Those fluids do not include saliva or tears but things like semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids and breast milk.

Right now, all blood that is collected at donation centers is tested for HIV and hepatitis, according to Dr. Susan Rossmann of the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center. "So every unit that goes to a patient is tested," she assures.

Young wonders, "If we already have ways that we can solve that problem without assuming that people are gonna tell you the full truth about their behaviors that are very personal, then why wouldn't we just move in that step?"

Devon Greene, a Houstonian who is against the blood ban for gay males, agrees, "If straight people aren't held to the same standards, if we are not also held to the one-year after having unprotected sex with a partner, I don't think it's valid to do that for homosexuals."

Right now, the FDA is collecting feedback on the issue through regulations.gov. (Click here for a direct link.) After July 14th, they will make their final decision and issue the new recommendations.

For more on this story, pick up a copy of this month's Houstonia.

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