Locals reproach Red Cross for ‘gay ban’ on blood donations; other criteria, scientific debate

ST. GEORGE — A peaceful demonstration gathered at the American Red Cross donation center in St. George Friday as part of a nationwide event to criticize the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s longstanding policy of what the demonstrators call a “gay ban.” The Red Cross’s policy they are protesting is to not admit the blood of men who have had sex with other men into the nation’s blood banks, and it extends to women have had sex with a man who has had sex with another man.

About 10 demonstrators, including men affected by the “ban” as well as allies who support their cause, met at the center this morning. Several more are expected to come throughout the day. The event took place in over 50 cities nationwide.

While attention may be directed to the cause of men affected by this ban, it is also to be noted that there are extensive criteria for which people are excluded from public donation and there are other options for donating and receiving blood apart from the American Red Cross, as discussed in this report.

L-R: Dorothy Engelman, Gary Engelman, Randy Thomson, Renee Braveman, and Jillisa Lind gather for a peaceful demonstration against the FDA's blood donation regulations, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, July 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News
L-R: Dorothy Engelman, Gary Engelman, Randy Thomson, Renee Braveman, and Jillisa Lind gather for a peaceful demonstration against the FDA’s blood donation regulations, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, July 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News

The National Gay Blood Drive

The National Gay Blood Drive was organized by Ryan James Yezak, who directed the documentary film Second Class Citizens, which recounts the history of sexual orientation discrimination and the gay rights movement in the United States.

The alternative blood drive “will visually convey to the FDA just how much blood the gay & bisexual community can contribute to the already strapped blood supply should they lift the ban,” said Randy Thomson, Secretary for the Washington County Democratic Party and co-organizer of St. George’s local event along with Aidan Avery.

As part of the demonstration, otherwise eligible men arrived at the blood donation center to fill out the questionnaire, only to be turned away due to their sexual histories. Additionally, participants have received HIV testing from the local Planned Parenthood chapter on a donation basis. The results from these tests are to be collected, compiled, and delivered to the FDA. Organizers of the event expect a minimal incidence of HIV among those tested.

 

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Yezak called the ban outdated and discriminatory, promoting a negative stereotype. He urged the FDA to revise its policy and focus on sexual behavior instead of sexual orientation.

American Medical Association board member Dr. William Kobler agreed with Yezak, calling the FDA’s regulation “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

The AMA formally voted last month to favor that the FDA change its policy.

Kobler added that the AMA’s stance pushes for “a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone.”

But the FDA maintains that its policy is based on medical statistics regarding certain sexual activities and “is not based on any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.”

Eligibility requirements

According to the American Red Cross, less than 38 percent of the American population is eligible to donate blood for a wide variety of reasons, largely due to the FDA’s regulations.

The deferral letter of one would-be donor, citing male sexual activity with another man as cause for denial, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News
The deferral letter of one would-be donor, citing male sexual activity with another man as cause for denial, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News

Eligibility requirements include being at least 17 years of age, maintaining a healthy weight; one must be healthy and not on antibiotics and one must wait a certain amount of days to donate after taking certain vaccinations. There are also policies against intravenous drug use and a waiting period after piercings and tattoos.

One must wait 12 months after travel in an area where malaria is found or wait three years after living in a country or countries where malaria is found. There is a 12 month wait after travel to Iraq. This requirement is related to concerns about Leishmanaisis. People who have spent long periods of time in countries with a substantial incidence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, commonly known as “mad cow disease” will have eligibility denied. For example, anyone who has lived at least three months cumulatively in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996 is denied for life because the UK had a high incidence of mad cow disease during that time. These are just a small portion of myriad restrictions that apply to blood donors according to FDA guidelines.

Often ineligible are those who have served in the military overseas.

Family blood banks provide an option to people who are ineligible to donate blood. If, for example, one had antibodies against anthrax, smallpox, and other weaponized strains of viruses it could have damaging effects and even kill a person who received it. However, the children and grandchildren of an individual with such antibodies could have inherited the same antibodies and be able to receive the blood without harm.

Here is complete list of Red Cross Eligibility Requirements.

The American Red Cross top priority is the safety of volunteer blood donors and the ultimate recipients of blood.

BioLife Plasma Service receives plasma donations in St. George and around the country. The business has opted not to criticize the FDA’s regulation.

“BioLife complies with requirements Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding donor eligibility,” a BioLife spokesperson said, offering no further comment.

The FDA is responsible for determining donor eligibility requirements and blood and plasma banks are required to follow the agency’s regulations.

Medical reasoning for the ban

Men who have had sex with other men, a category referred to as MSM by medical professionals, make up only 2 percent of the American population. Yet, in 2010, “MSM accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S. and an estimated 77 percent of diagnosed HIV infections among males were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact,” the FDA’s website said.

The deferral letter of one would-be donor, citing high blood pressure as cause for denial, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News
The deferral letter of one would-be donor, citing high blood pressure as cause for denial, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News

The FDA pointed out that incidence of HIV on the rise among MSM increased 12 percent between 2008 and 2010 even while it has decreased among the general population. Such data highlights that HIV-infection is even more correlated to sexual activity between men today than it has been in the past.

The FDA further stated that the largest increase of HIV infection – out of any population studied over that time period – saw 22 percent in MSM between the ages of 13 and 24. “Since younger individuals are more likely to donate blood, the implications of this increase in incidence need to be further evaluated,” the organization’s website said.

Even though all donated blood in the United States is tested for HIV, the disease is still transmitted to a blood recipient about two or three times every year. These cases account for approximately 1 in every 2 million blood transfusions, according to the FDA. The organization said that its policy “minimizes even the small risk of getting infectious diseases such as HIV or hepatitis through a blood transfusion.”

Many critics of the current policy argue that it is an arcane vestige of a time when donors had to be screened by questionnaires rather than by direct testing of their blood.

“Twenty-eight years ago we didn’t have the HIV testing capabilities that we do now,” Yezak said.

According to the FDA, while HIV testing is far more accurate than it was decades ago, it is still not 100 percent accurate. For example, an infection may have been sustained recently enough that it cannot be detected in even the most advanced testing. Such infections may still be transmitted through blood transfusions, the agency said on its website.

In search of a better policy

The FDA is open to changing its policy, but said it would do so “only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients.”

“In the future,” the agency said, “improved questionnaires may be helpful to better select safe donors, but this cannot be assumed without evidence.”

For its part in policy, the Red Cross wrote: “We will continue to work through the American Association of Blood Banks to press for donor deferral policies that are fair and consistent and based on scientific evidence, while still protecting patients from potential harm.”

The Red Cross further expressed its support for “the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities.”

In a joint statement the American Red Cross, America’s Blood Centers and the AABB stated:

AABB, America’s Blood Centers and the American Red Cross strongly support the use of rational, scientifically-based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among blood donors who engage in similar risk activities. Therefore, since 2006 our organizations have recommended a change in the Food and Drug Administration’s deferral criteria for prospective male blood donors who have had sexual contact with another male.

The organizations presented this joint statement to the FDA further stating their belief “that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men is medically and scientifically unwarranted” and recommending that the deferral criteria “be modified and made comparable with criteria for other groups at increased risk for sexual transmission of transfusion-transmitted infections.”

Read the complete statement: Donor Deferral for Men Who Have Had Sex with Another Man.

The Health and Human Service’s Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability met to discuss the FDA MSM deferral policy June 10, 2010, and the issues addresses in the statements above.

The Committee was asked to determine if there were sufficient data to support a change in policy at this time, or to identify areas of further study that would establish a sound scientific basis for a change in policy.

L-R: Randy Thomson and Aidan Avery attempt to register to donate blood in a peaceful demonstration against the FDA's blood donation regulations, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, July 12, 2013 | Photo by Kevin Gilbert Mauer, St. George News
L-R: Randy Thomson and Aidan Avery attempt to register to donate blood in a peaceful demonstration against the FDA’s blood donation regulations, American Red Cross donation center, St. George, Utah, July 12, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Dorothy Engelman, St. George New

The committee voted to retain the existing policy and identified areas of further research. Additional studies are needed to address the following questions:

  • How does the risk of blood transmissible diseases in the current donor population related to risk factors in donors?
  • What is the root cause of the Quarantine Release Errors, the accidental release of blood not cleared for use that occur at blood collection centers and potentially put the blood supply at risk, and what mitigations can be considered?
  • Do potential blood donors correctly understand and properly interpret the current standard questionnaire used to obtain donor history?  What motivates men with MSM behavioral history to donate blood and would MSM be likely to comply with modified deferral criteria?
  • Would an alternative screening strategy for MSM (and potentially other high-risk donors) assure blood safety?

When the results and data from the studies are available and potential policy revisions are brought forward for consideration, HHS intends to provide opportunities for discussion in a public forum. This will open the door for policy changes in the near future.

But Randy Thomson, who served as the primary point person for the demonstration in St. George, said that the FDA has not been moving fast enough. “It should’ve been done a long time ago,” he said

Thomson added that one alternative policy that has been discussed is the implementation of a one-year waiting period for males who have had sexual contact with males. This is the policy that is in place in most industrialist countries worldwide. However, he said that such a change would not go far enough.

“We want to go further than that,” he said, saying that such a ban would still place an unwarranted stigma upon homosexual relations between men.

Locals talk back

St. George News hit the streets and asked locals if they thought about where their blood came from if they needed a transfusion.

“No, because the blood is always checked to insure no disease is being transferred,” Candice Lopez said. “I helped a 4-year-old child years ago and gave her my white blood platelets as she had cancer. It showed me the power blood can have even if it comes from another.”

“Maybe in the early 90s late 80s,” Mary Fox Flores said, “because they didn’t have the technology we have now. That’s why they ask when your giving blood if you’ve had a blood transfusion before a certain date. The MSM rule needs to be severely looked at. HIV/ AIDS can happen to anyone sexually active, not just homosexual males. Although, From my understanding even with all the extensive testing done today the virus can still go undetected from once blood is given.”

“I fail to see how it is a systemic inequality,” Jaxon Peterson said. “I’ll go the route of homosexuals being born that way. There are plenty of people who are unable to donate due to certain conditions that are not met, and that are out of their control due to genetics, i.e. height requirements. These aren’t discriminating issues, they are criteria set forth for the safety of the general public.”

But Yezak doesn’t want what he considers the demonstration’s essential message of humanism to be lost on anyone. “This is not a protest, this is not meant to be political,” he said. “This is a demonstration of peace, of love, of being a human being.”

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery. 

Resources 

National Gay Blood Drive

FDA Ban on Gay Men as Blood Donors Opposed by American Medical Association

FDA Blood Donations from Men Who Have Sex with Other Men Questions and Answers

Red Cross Eligibility Requirements

Event Recap 

Who: Gay/bisexual men who oppose the regulation

What: National Gay Blood Drive

Where: American Red Cross, 476 E Riverside Dr.

When: Friday 8:45 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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St. George News Reporter Sarah Isaacson contributed to this report.

Email: kmauer@stgnews.com

Twitter: @KGilbertMauer

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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3 Comments

  • mk hernandez July 15, 2013 at 7:06 am

    Allow gay and bi men the right to donate blood by signing the petition at http://chn.ge/Kyplf0
    You can also follow our efforts at http://www.facebook.com/weallrequal

  • rights vs priviledge July 15, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Since when is giving blood a right? It is a privilege and not a right. Breathing is a right, voting is a right (if you are a legal citizen), worshipping how you will is a right, complaning about not being able to give blood is your right.

    However it is not “right” that the gays are looking for as they already have all the same rights. What they want is acceptance by society of the choices that they make. You can’t get this by demonstrations or through the courts. The only way in which you gets this is by the slow errosion of society by making good things look bad and bad things look good. TV is trying its best as we are constantly inundated with it, but you have a long ways to go still.

  • be reasonable July 17, 2013 at 11:16 am

    “…a ban would still place an unwarranted stigma upon homosexual relations between men.” Unwarranted? Really?!! According to the article 61 (SIXTY-ONE!!) percent of new HIV infections are in homosexual men.
    If we can eliminate 61% of the risk of spreading HIV via blood transfusion by refusing a small percentage of potential donors, it only makes sense to do it. This is NOT a “gay rights” issue. This is about the right of those who need blood transfusions to receive disease-free blood!
    By the way, I have been rejected for high blood pressure and low iron and my husband has a lifetime ban because of cancer. We aren’t out protesting that our “rights” have been violated. We want a safe blood supply for our country.

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