A savageness in unclaimed blood
On Tuesday, Wash. U. will hold the first of its two annual blood drives. Particularly in light of the Red Cross announcing its lowest blood supply in 15 years earlier this summer, donating is especially important for those who are able.
But unfortunately, the definition of “able” according to the FDA, fails to include a large percentage of college-age students physically capable and interested in donating blood. Since 1985, the FDA has prohibited men who have engaged in sexual relations with other men at any point after 1977—the official year that the AIDS epidemic began—from donating blood. Not only is the “men who have sex with men,” or MSM, ban an unfairly discriminatory measure, but it is one that actively harms others and needs to be repealed.
The push to repeal the more than two-decades-old measure has been ongoing, but the recent blood shortage has led to an intensified push to end the ban. CNN reported in June that 64 U.S. legislators sent letters urging the Department of Health and Human Services to progress with a study that many believe will lead to overturning the ban.
According to a recent study by the Williams Institute, approximately 4.5 million American men identify as gay, and according to America’s Blood Centers, one pint of blood—a standard donation —can save up to three lives. Subtracting the 600,000 MSMs who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports are HIV-positive, and assuming gay men would donate blood in the same numbers as the rest of the population—about 10 percent —then 390,000 additional pints of blood could be collected annually, which would have the potential to save 1,170,000 additional people every year.
The only dubious rationale for banning MSMs from donating blood is the risk of tests for HIV reading as false negatives, which happens approximately .03 percent of the time. Given that all units are tested at least twice and that people who know themselves to be HIV-positive are actively discouraged from donating, the probability of an infected unit actually being administered to a patient is very small. But anyone’s blood can read a false negative, and discriminating against a specific population because of a decades-old scare over a misunderstood disease is unfounded.
The American Red Cross has repeatedly asked the FDA to repeal the ban, though its requests have consistently fallen on deaf ears. Since 2010, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and many of his fellow senators have been engaged in letter-writing campaign to overturn the ban, and the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability has recommended that the rule be revised.
As a leader in the field of medical research, Wash. U. should add its weight to the battle to reverse the ban. As an institution of higher education, it should not be complicit in the discrimination of an entire demographic, particularly one it prides itself on supporting.
The fact that men who have had sex with at least one man since 1977 are prohibited from donating while many other high-risk demographics are permitted to do so is illogical and harmful. The ban further stigmatizes a demographic that already suffers from a barrage of hateful rhetoric, and its being struck down could both save countless individuals and advance equality for the gay community.