FDA Should End Gay Blood Ban

The Food and Drug Administration is the man at the end of the bar that you would prefer tells his story walking. His claims are rote, the bark of calamity whistling through his toothless bite.

We’ve seen the impotence in how the FDA regulates antibiotics in meat, or how feeble it is to regulate supplements that are shamelessly mislabeled and continue to kill us one weight-loss fad at a time. But the FDA’s continued ban on allowing gay and bisexual men to donate blood is not toothless—it’s spineless.

Millions of Americans are being denied an altruistic right to help others, based on a dogmatic approach to science that should be relegated to the Reagan era.

On Monday, local elected leaders and health experts gathered outside of the county building and called on the FDA to change its policy.

The press conference came just a year after Evan Low, mayor of Campbell and a state Assembly candidate, was asked to host a blood drive by the Red Cross. The humanitarian organization was unaware at the time that Low, a human, was also gay.

Campbell Mayor Evan Low, second from left, speaks with San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra, and others after Monday's press conference.

Campbell Mayor Evan Low, second from left, speaks with San Jose Councilman Ash Kalra, and others after Monday's press conference.

Men who have sex with men (MSM) are barred from donating blood if they’ve had sex after 1977. Low was born in the early 80s, which meant he was just young enough to be allowed nowhere near a needle. He hosted the event anyway, raising awareness and proving he’s a bigger man than most.

“We need to continue to put pressure on the FDA and Health and Human Services Department that were focused on the real public policy issues,” Low told San Jose Inside. “This happened very organically. I was aware of this issue but it was not a top priority. But it was very real to me, because I experienced what it felt like to host a blood drive but not participate."

Congressman Mike Honda, County Supervisor Dave Cortese, San Jose Councilmember Ash Kalra, District Attorney Jeff Rosen and others joined Low on Monday. The group called for a change in national policy while also encouraging people to donate blood at a nearby mobile clinic. A similar event will be held from noon to 4pm Friday at Flames Eatery & Bar, located at 88. S. Fourth St. in downtown San Jose.

To be clear, the science has improved to the point that forbidding gay men from donating blood—when there is and has been a very real national blood shortage­—is just another form of institutionalized discrimination. African Americans contract HIV at a disproportionately higher rate than the rest of Americans, and yet there is no ban on donating blood if you’ve been black since 1977. Thankfully.

Risky sexual behavior cuts across the sexual orientation spectrum and the threat of false negative test results is a fact of life.

“Seeing staunch advocates like (former county health officer) Marty Fenstersheib speak out—this is about science, this is a public issue and he’s a public health expert, a county official,” Low said. “That’s real.”

What’s also real is many of the people who receive donated blood don’t give a damn where it comes from, as long as it helps them get better.

A mobile blood bank parked just outside the county building.

A mobile blood bank parked just outside the county building.

Lynn Walton, of Santa Cruz, came to Monday’s event to speak out about the absurd ban on her gay son not being able to donate blood that would assist her other son get the blood plasma he needs to survive.

Her son Douglas, 26, requires what’s known as Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) to keep him alive. To produce the plasma, thousands of donors’ blood is synthesized for a single treatment. Her older son, John, 38, wants to help but has been banned from donating—not because he’s unhealthy but because he’s been stigmatized as unhealthy.

“I think the archaic laws that were set in place in the ’80s need to go away,” Walton said. “I’m convinced that with their screening processes my younger son would be safe.”

National Gay Blood Drive will be holding events around the country Friday, and a petition to the White House can be found on the organization’s website.

Josh Koehn is the managing editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Email tips to [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Josh_Koehn.

27 Comments

  1. There is absolutely no basis for this ban to continue. All blood is tested for HIV/AIDS among other things before it can be used. If a straight person gives blood, and they have AIDS, their blood is simply discarded. Why keep healthy gay people from giving blood when there is a massive shortage?

    • > All blood is tested for HIV/AIDS among other things . . .

      I am skeptical. Show me some evidence.

      HIV is a virus, which is not easily detected under a microscope.

      I don’t know what the state of testing for antibodies or other makers is, but I suspect that it is far from foolproof.

      I suspect that the occurrence of “false negatives” in testing random blood samples for HIV/AIDS is unacceptably high.

      “You mean that blood sample had HIV/AIDS? It didn’t show up in our test. Ooooops. Sorry.”

  2. I agree but I understand where this is coming from. The opposite was happenning in the early 80’s. Although scientists were telling the FDA and Blood Banks such as the Red Cross that AIDS was transmitted through blood they were slow to do anything (as was the Reagan administration FYI) because it meant spending monies on tests for Hep B and was deemed too expensive. Hep B was the only way back then since there was no HIV/AIDS test yet, to tell if a donor was infected because Hep B was also found in HIV infected patients. So I find this highly ironic that now the FDA is being so cautious!

  3. The first cases of AIDS in America predated the Reagan administration by more than a decade, a period during which the transmission rate for even the riskiest forms of gay sex remained far too low for the disease to ever reach epidemic status (per the CDC). What changed things was not Ronald Reagan’s policies but a media-driven increase in societal tolerance for homosexuality along with the gay population’s reckless, childish, self-destructive reaction to that newfound tolerance.

    Pushing the public to accept the presence of gay bath houses in its communities was a borderline criminal act of progressive lunacy, tantamount to approving biological weapons production in parks and playgrounds. Add together the demographics involved (baby boom numbers of young men), the spike in the use of dangerous drugs (cocaine, amphetamines, poppers), and the documented insatiability common to bath house regulars, and you have the perfect storm that created the AIDS epidemic. It wasn’t the fault of the government, Reagan, or African-American IV drug users; it was gay men. And because of their deranged and inexcusable behavior, a disease that had previously posed a less than 1% infection rate per exposure (sex, shared needles) got into the nation’s blood supply, where its risk of infection was a near certainty, over 90%.

    AIDS killed a lot of people who’d never engaged in risky sex or drug use, and it killed them by way of what patients were told were “safe” blood transfusions. Of course, these trusting patients had no idea of the viral horror that had been cooked up in a community that was exercising newly acquired freedoms and opportunities, and who’s to say what this disproportionately troubled, self-centered, still risk-taking community is cooking up today?

    • Where are the statistics that “a lot of people who’d never engaged in risky sex or drug use…” come from? My understanding is that it was a very, very low number, like a handful at most (and this was before the virus was identified. Also, condoms are 99.9% effective in preventing HIV infection, so promiscuous sexual activity is not the cause of HIV transmission, it is unsafe sex.

  4. Maybe there should be a gay blood ban. Maybe there shouldn’t. Maybe certain drugs should be approved for use. Maybe they shouldn’t. Presumably these are the sorts of questions the vast government bureaucracy, the FDA, is there to objectively decide. In the case of drugs, we abhor the idea that “big pharma” influences FDA’s decisions. Wouldn’t the same principle apply with the FDA changing it’s decision due to pressure from the gay lobby? Do gays want an FDA that caves in to political pressure? And do I want a blood transfusion because Evan Wong says it’s OK?

    • It is politics that is causing the FDA to cling to this outmoded way of thinking and it will take politics to change it. HIV tests are 99.8% effective, people that are HIV infected should not be allowed to donate, and if a gay man, chose to lie about his personal sexual activities (that never happens), his blood ends up in the system anyway. The ban is bigoted, judgmental, outdated and useless. There are perfectly healthy gay men that cannot give blood, many of whom, myself included, would donate on a regular basis if it was wanted. From what I hear, more blood is not only wanted, but sorely needed.

  5. I just recently had surgery and they asked if I would accept blood, if needed. What I was told that was though they do screen the blood, they can’t be 100% sure.

      • The test is 99.8% accurate. That is better than screening tests for many other diseases that you can get from a blood transfusion. Anyone that knows they are HIV+ are not going to be giving blood. It the people that don’t know that are the risk. Check out the office of AIDS website and base your opinions on facts, not partisan rhetoric and hyperbole. http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/aids/Pages/Default.aspx

        • > The test is 99.8% accurate.

          Or, two failures out of a thousand cases.

          And blood screening is for the protection of the general public, not for saving HIV/AIDS infected persons.

          99.8% level of confidence in the safety of a drug or critical diagnostic is NOT an acceptable level of safety.

          NO WAY. NO HOW.

          It’s NOT an acceptable level of safety for riding on an airliner. It’s NOT an acceptable level of safety for general clinical use on the public.

          Good grief. Two airplane crashes out of every thousand flights.

          Two consumer safety law suits out of every thousand HIV blood tests.

          100,000 consumer safety lawsuits from testing a 100 million blood donations!

          Trial lawyers get rich from politicizing and compromising public health.

  6. Chris,

    I guess it depends on your definition of a “handful.” To the Goedkens of Iowa, maybe the eight members who died constitute a handful. To the community of American hemophiliacs — fully half of whom were infected in the 80’s, maybe that handful is closer to 10,000.

    Truth be told, the data is hard to come by, as this particular tangent of the AIDS story was of little interest to the media (except when they needed a doomed hemophiliac as a weapon in their cultural war).

    • I don’t see any citations in your email, so I have no idea what you are referring to… was this before or after the virus was identified and detectable? Where did the blood come from? How do we know that it came from a gay man? There are way to many holes in your argument.

  7. Chris,

    You provided statistics without citation but now change the rules of discourse here… nonetheless:

    Ricky Ray Hemophilia Relief Fund Program, Healthcare Systems
    Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department
    of Health and Human Services
    The Program implemented the Ricky Ray
    Hemophilia Relief Fund Act of 1998 (the Act), Pub. Law 105-369. The Act
    established a Trust Fund to provide compassionate payments to
    individuals with blood-clotting disorders, such as hemophilia, who were
    treated with antihemophilic factor between July 1, 1982 and December
    31, 1987, and contracted human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as
    to certain persons who contracted HIV from these individuals. In the
    event individuals eligible for payment were deceased, the Act also
    provided for payments to certain survivors of these individuals.
    Under section 101(d) of the Act, the Trust Fund terminated on
    November 12, 2003. The Act requires all remaining funds to be deposited
    in the miscellaneous receipts account in the Treasury of the United
    States.
    The Program has made compassionate payments totaling in excess of
    $559 million to more than 7,171 eligible individuals and survivors.
    http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2005-09-29/html/05-19430.htm

    • Thank you for making my point. The Elisa Test for HIV antibodies was not invented until 1985 and the Western Blot, which is the most accurate, was invented in 1987. The infections you are referring to occurred before or at about the same time these tests were being developed. I asked you to provide references because “as far as I knew,” the numbers were small. I never quoted any statistics. Here is another reference: http://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/.

      Incidences of HIV/AIDS infections from tainted blood have gone down significantly since the wide use of the Western Blot was implemented. Incidentally the 99.8% figure I quoted earlier (with a reference) is for the antibody test. The Western Blot test is 100% accurate – http://i-base.info/guides/testing/test-accuracy-results-and-further-testing.

  8. Chris,

    Glad to have made your case for you. I didn’t understand that when you claimed that AIDS killed only a handful of people who’d not engaged in risky sex or drug abuse that your hand could hold thousands (you should ask yourself why you didn’t know this). I also didn’t understand that you had proof that it is no longer possible for homosexual excesses and debauchery (which will never cease) to create new threats to our blood supply.

    If homosexuals (or any other group) ever had a “right” to donate blood, that right was forfeited in the bath houses of the 1980’s. Not only did they recklessly unleash an epidemic on this nation, they fought to keep their beloved bath houses open (SF had to government authority to shut its down), proving themselves, once again, to be hopelessly self-centered and self-destructive.

  9. The attacks on the FDA which begin this piece are irrelevant to the substance of this page.

    The HIV infection rate for African-Americans is higher than that of the general population, but it’s nowhere near the high infection rate, not mentioned in this piece, for gay and bisexual males,

    It seems among the HIV political activist community, there’s a high priority in ending the blood donation ban, but very little priority on prevention initiatives. Any wonder why the infection rate is still so high?

    And the mom with the hemophiliac son seems not to know how HIV wiped out nearly all hemophilia victims in the 80s and 90s.

  10. > The Western Blot test is 100% accurate –

    Great. But not relevant to the mass screening of donated blood.

    http://www.thebody.com/Forums/AIDS/SafeSex/Q196268.html?ic=2003

    > Western Blot (WB) Assay

    > The WB is a confirmatory test: it is only performed if the ELISA is positive. The WB can be positive, negative, or indeterminate. Indeterminate tests are neither positive nor negative. An indeterminate result usually means that a person has just begun to seroconvert at the time of their test. In the rare cases in which this occurs, the person will need to be retested, usually about one month later. False positive results are extremely rare with the WB, so it confirms (proves) that HIV antibodies are present.

    Translation:

    The WB test may be very accurate in telling you for sure that you DO have AIDS.

    But if you get a NEGATIVE result, it DOESN’T tell you that you DON’T have AIDS.

    It is NOT a screening test.

    It is a complicated test ( and probably expensive) and their are many opportunities to screw it up and get a FALSE NEGATIVE result.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_blot

    Bottom line:

    Testing a 100 million donations with the Western Blot test is ridiculously expensive and WON’T prove the blood supply is safe because of the (unknown) probability of false negatives.

    • The point it that there are millions òf Gay men that do not have HIV that are being singled out just because they are gay men. This is discrimination, plan and simple. I could be a 51 year old man who had experimental gay sex in high school, just once, and I am banned from giving blood. For the rest of my life. How is this fair? Not all gay men should give blood. What should happen is make a change in the question aire that eliminates high risk sexual behavior of all people. A one time sexual encounter 30 years ago is not high risk, but 20 encounters last week is….
      The blood tests are highly accurate. This is not the issue. There are plenty of pathogens in blood that can go undetected and HIV is not one of them if tested. I have been trained in HIV testing and it is very hard to make a mustake.

      • > The blood tests are highly accurate. This is not the issue.

        You completely missed the point.

        And the point that you missed is EXTREMELY important.

        Let me repeat;

        The WB test may be “highly accurate” in confirming a positive. If you get a positive result in an WB test, you can be positive you have HIV/AIDS.

        The WB test is NOT “highly accurate” in giving a clear, reliable, NEGATIVE. If you test a blood sample with the WB and get a negative result, you CANNOT conclude that the blood sample is HIV/AIDS free with “100%”.certainty.

        In mass testing of donated blood samples FALSE NEGATIVES are the issue and there must be solid, compelling, science-based evidence documenting and quantifying that the risk to the public is known and at an acceptably low level.

        > This is discrimination, plan and simple.
        > How is this fair

        It’s fair to the public, because it reduces the risk of being exposed to HIV/AIDS contaminated blood to the humanly possible statistical minimum, which is what matters,

        If the 1.6 percent of the population who is gay has hurt feelings, it’s the price they have to pay for being a part of American civilization.

        • I dont know what makes you an expert on HIV/AIDS, but I am a certified HIV test counselor. I didn’t miss your point. If you read my other posts you will note that I do think they need to change the questions to eliminate those that are currently engaged in high risk behavior that have not been recently tested for HIV. Additionally there are other diseases transmitted by blood that are not 100% detectible, but we still take blood from everyone except gay men. Sounds perfectly fair and reasonable to to me… why don’t you try understanding the other side of the argument before you try to tell me what I know and what I don’t know.
          The last person to get HIV from a blood transfusion was back in 2008. I am absolutely positive that gay men have given blood since then and there has not been a sudden outbreak of HIV from blood transfusions. Banning a whole segment of people based on sexual orientation alone does not make sense. Even gay men who have never been exposed to HIV are banned if they had sex just once since 1977. Again, how is this fair?

          • > I dont know what makes you an expert on HIV/AIDS …

            I’m a scientist. I understand the physical universe, and what science knows, doesn’t know, and is incapable of knowing.

            It is well known to real scientists that proving a NEGATIVE proposition is virtually impossible.

            Prove to us that there is no HIV/AIDS contaminated blood among a 100 million blood samples.

            It can’t be done.

            It is well known to real scientists that the statistical probability for obtaining an HIV/AIDS contaminated blood sample from a gay person is higher than for a sample from a non-gay person.

            Ergo, adding gays to the supplier population increases the statistical probability of increasing contamination of the blood supply.

            Gay activists can deny this all they want, They can whine about discrimination and unfairness all they want. They can call people hateful names.

            But the irrefutable scientific fact is that the blood supply is safer if contributions from gay donors are excluded.

            If you have REAL SCIENTIFIC evidence from REAL SCIENTISTS that says otherwise, bring it on.

            Decisions on public health that affect hundreds of millions of people should be made on the basis of hard science by competent scientists of the highest integrity. (Sadly, in the era of abundant government grant money, there ARE scientists who will sell their integrity for a mess of pottage.)

            Public health decisions should not be made by political activists.

            By the way, an honest, rational gay person who cared about the health and well-being of gay people AND understood science and statistics would ALSO be in favor of excluding gay donors from the blood supply because it would prevent the spread of new HIV/AIDS infections among gays.

          • Thank you for proving that bigotry comes in all shapes and sizes. Just because you seem to know about science does not mean you are not prejudiced and bigoted. Science can be used to make an argument in favor of allowing Gay men to give blood, but you are prejudiced and bigoted, so you will not use all your “science” to argue that point. The fact that you cannot see that shows that you are definitely in a narrow minded bubble and refuse to see the other side of the argument.

          • To summarize what I have written previously: The questionnaire that one fills out when they give blood asks if they are a man who has had sex with another man since 1977. If the man says “yes,” he cannot give blood for the rest of his life. Many gay men who have sex regularly, get HIV tests regularly. The questionnaire could go on to ask questions about whether or not this man has ever had an HIV test, what the history of testing is, and the results of the tests. The chances are that if the person as been tested several times, that they are not positive for HIV. This, plus the screening that the blood banks do can narrow the chance of infected blood getting into the system to 0%. Why doesn’t somebody do the math on that? If somebody got an HIV test six months ago and the test was negative, he does not have HIV, If he did he would start to show signs. So, if he got tested once every six months for a year, with no knew sexual partners, he is free of HIV. Why cant he give blood?