Banned for Life: Do Indefinite Deferrals for Gay Men Blood Donors Do More Harm Than Good?
Blood centers should maintain at least a three-day supply of blood on hand, according to the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB). Too often, the supply of donated blood gets lower than that three-day supply. Photo Credit: Flickr.
by Attorney Richard Console for Console & Hollawell
In a situation that blends a tricky public health topic with the hot-button issue of discrimination, a longstanding blood donation policy of the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has Congressional representatives calling for change. The FDA’s policy requires that blood collection organizations indefinitely (read: permanently) defer men who have had sex with men (MSM). Opponents say the lifetime ban, established in 1983 to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS contamination in the blood supply, is based on outdated science. Could lifting this lifetime deferral be the answer to the critical blood shortage, or could it actually endanger the blood supply?
The Case for Reconsideration
I’ve written before about blood donation and made no secret that my staff and I feel strongly about the significance of donating blood. Many severely injured clients who come into my office wouldn’t be alive today without the medical breakthrough of blood transfusions and the generous gift of donated blood. Whenever I hear about a blood shortage – which lately seems to happen every year – it’s hard not to imagine the people who might die, as much from being in an accident as from the inability to access a life-saving blood transfusion. I have personally known people who suffered such serious injuries in accidents that they needed massive amounts of blood, as much as the average person has in their entire body, just to stabilize their condition.
I could throw out dozens of statistics to illustrate the need for increased blood donation. The most startling, and relevant, is the percentage of the population eligible to donate blood: less than 38 percent. We rely on just over one-third of our nation’s population to provide a medical necessity used in trauma centers, operating rooms, and cancer treatments across the country – and then we wonder why there’s not enough blood to go around?
Can reconsidering the policies requiring lifetime deferrals of “men who have had sex with other men (MSM),” as the FDA refers to the group, increase that source of blood? If so, I think we have every responsibility to explore the options. Above all, we must make sure we understand the science behind disease transmission and realistically evaluate risk factors for individuals. We’ve known about AIDS for decades now, and we are so much better equipped to test for it, prevent it, and assess the risks now than we were when the FDA ruling first came into being in 1983.
Americans need blood transfusions every two seconds, resulting in 30,000,000 transfusions each year. A single car accident victim may need up to 100 pints of blood to survive and recover, according to the American Red Cross. Photo Credit:Flickr.
It’s true that the MSM group has a higher than average prevalence of HIV infection. Some racial and ethnic groups remain disproportionately represented in statistics of HIV infection victims, too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but most reasonable people realize that banning these groups from donating – for life – would be not only discriminatory but also outrageous. Those of lower socioeconomic classes are also disproportionately affected by HIV, the American Psychological Association reported. Should we allow only the wealthy to donate blood? Should potential donors have to bring their income tax paperwork to verify their income? And how quickly would the blood supply dry up if we began marginalizing other entire groups of potential blood donors the way we have done with the MSM population?
“I felt much better about my donation.”September 28, 2016
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