Blood drives are hardly an uncommon sight on the MSU campus. Between the American Red Cross and United Blood services, it seems as though there is always a steady stream of bandaged students woozily leaving the SUB Ballrooms. If you have been one of those students, kudos to you for making a life-saving donation!
As part of the donation process, every potential donor is asked a series of questions at each donation. These questions include the medications you have taken, the places you have travelled to, your sexual history and if you have used non-prescription drugs.
These questions, though very personal, serve the crucial purpose of screening people whose blood is considered high-risk for carrying infectious diseases or traces of medications that would be dangerous to blood recipients. The questions have been tailored to target a variety of high-risk behaviors — however, there is one question that targets a demographic, not a behavior.
That question asks, if you are a man, “Have you have had sex with another man, even once, since 1977?” or, if you are a woman, “Have you have had sex with a man who has had sex with another man, even once, since 1977?” For women who answer yes, they are deferred from donating for 12 months. For men who answer yes, it is a lifelong deferral.
This policy stems from the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s. In the early years of the outbreak, there was no reliable method for detecting the virus, which justified blanket bans on high-risk groups — including men who have sex with men (MSM) — who make up a large percentage of those living with HIV/AIDS in the United States. Since that time, tests to detect the virus have improved in leaps and bounds, and can reliably detect the presence of HIV/AIDS antibodies increasingly earlier. Regrettably, the restriction on gay men from donating blood has remained firmly in place instead of evolving with improved detection methods.
Although the concerns of MSM and HIV/AIDS are valid, the policy banning them from donating blood is targeting their sexuality, not the high-risk sexual behaviors associated with HIV/AIDS transmission. Other groups that are excluded for life include commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users. However, their sex partners, including those that pay for sex with commercial sex workers, are only deferred for 12 months.
It is this uneven application of exclusion of potential donors based on high-risk behaviors that should be re-evaluated. It is unfair that a gay man in a monogamous relationship who practices safer sex and gets tested regularly is still deferred from donating for life while a heterosexual man or woman with multiple partners and unsafe behaviors might only be deferred temporarily, or not at all. Many blood collection organizations, including the United Blood Services, agree and have urged the FDA to modify the ban.
The policy exists to minimize the chance that infected blood makes it into the blood supply. However, it is time to examine outdated blanket ban policies. It has been more than 30 years since HIV/AIDS started being diagnosed in the United States, and since then, the understanding and detection of HIV/AIDS has only increased. The United States should follow the lead of countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, lift the lifelong ban on MSM and instead apply a 12-month deferral period since they last had a new sexual partner. It is time to stop stigmatizing entire groups of people and start focusing on the unsafe behaviors that are the true root of the problem.