Should homosexual men – a group with the highest HIV-infection rates in the nation – be allowed to donate blood?
That’s the question the federal government is considering this week as it re-evaluates whether it should lift the 30-year ban on homosexual blood donation.
On Thursday, members of the Department of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability will revisit the issue.
But a leading pathologist is warning that the move would heighten the risk of spreading HIV to other Americans.
‘Gay’ men have ‘much higher prevalence’ of HIV
Dr. Jay Brooks, an expert in blood banking and transfusion at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, told WND the problem with “donations from men who’ve had sex with men is that they have a much higher prevalence of HIV than the heterosexual community.”
“They have a much higher prevalence,” he emphasized.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, released a 2010 analysis of heavily affected populations showing “men who have sex with men,” or MSM, account for a large majority of new HIV infections, much more so than even injection drug users, or IDUs:
In fact, “CDC estimates that MSM represent approximated 4 percent of the male population in the United States, but male-to-male sex accounted for more than three-fourths (78 percent) of new HIV infections among men and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of all new infections in 2010.”
An estimated 1.1 million Americans are currently infected with HIV, and at least one quarter of those are said to be unaware of their infection. While some people experience symptoms early, others go years without experiencing any signs.
The CDC states: “Most people will develop antibodies that standard HIV tests can detect within 2-8 weeks (the average is 25 days). But, there is a chance that some people will take longer to develop antibodies. So, if you had risky sex or engaged in risky behavior with a person who has HIV or whose HIV status is unknown, you may need multiple tests to ensure you were not infected. … In very rare cases, it can take up to six months to develop antibodies to HIV.”
Brooks said: “So, if they donate, the problem is quarantine release errors. They’re going to test the blood. If the blood has HIV, they’re going to put a stamp on it. But if there’s an error, then that blood may go out. And that blood may be HIV positive.”
Concerned individuals may contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability.
HIV blood tests are not perfect
“It became apparent in the early ’80s that you could get AIDS from a blood transfusion,” Brooks explained. “There was a lot of criticism that the blood collection industry dragged its feet to keep their gay blood donors from donating and from developing a test, the idea being that gay blood donors were excellent blood donors. They would come in every eight weeks, and they didn’t want to lose them. They didn’t want to hurt their feelings.”
By the middle of the 1980s, an enzyme test was developed to screen for HIV.
“The problem with any test is, if I become infected right now, there’s a period of time before a test is going to be able to detect it,” Brooks said. “So what the FDA said was, looking at the epidemiology of HIV, we’re saying men who’ve had sex with men since 1977 are permanently deferred. That was the impetus for the ban.”
Over the years, Brooks said, testing improved dramatically but never reached perfection.
“The problem would be that you’d have more HIV in the blood supply, big time,” he said. “So you absolutely would not want to lift the ban and say, ‘Bring on all comers, our testing is so good.’”
The American Red Cross warns: “HIV antibodies may take a few weeks to develop after infection with the virus. If you were recently infected, you might have a negative test result, yet be able to infect the recipient of your donation. That is why you must not give blood if you are at risk of getting AIDS or other infectious diseases.”
Is it safe for homosexuals to donate?
Nonetheless, a petition a WhiteHouse.gov, created in November by students at the University of Michigan, claims the FDA policy is “discriminatory and inadequate.” The students want the federal government to merely ask prospective donors, “Have you had unprotected sexual contact with a new partner in the past 12 weeks?”
While other advocates of homosexual blood donation have argued that MSM should be allowed to donate if they say they haven’t had sex with men in at least one to five years – the current guidelines in Britain and Canada – Brooks said any such deferral period presents yet another complication.
“Part of the problem, to me, is you’re asking gay men to be celibate for a year to donate blood – or five years,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s certainly been documented in the medical literature that if we went to a one-year deferral period, it would not significantly add to the blood supply.”
Brooks added, “Yes, people need blood, but taking blood from men who’ve had sex from men since 1977 is not going to increase the blood supply substantially.”
Advocates also argue that HIV-negative men who have been in committed homosexual relationships for a year should be allowed to donate. According to the Washington Times, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis recommends a policy that permits people who are sexually active but engage in “low-risk sexual practices like condom usage or monogamy” to donate blood.
However, Brooks argues, the problem is that “one partner may have been monogamous and the other partner may not have been monogamous.”
“How do you vouch for your partner?”
HIV-contaminated blood infects transfusion patients
Although experts say it’s rare these days, HIV-contaminated blood has infected transfusion patients.
In June 2008, a married Missouri man who admitted to having sex – often anonymously with men and women outside of his marriage – donated HIV-infected blood.
According to the CDC’s Oct. 22, 2010 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” two recipients received the contaminated blood. One was a Colorado patient undergoing a kidney transplant, and he was later confirmed to be HIV positive following a transfusion with the infected donor’s blood. The second patient, an Arkansas man, died of heart disease two days after receiving the HIV-infected blood.
Brooks said he dreads the day a doctor will be forced to tell family members that a patient has contracted HIV following a blood transfusion when the whole scenario could have been avoided.
“I’ve seen this with blood transfusion, where a patient will come into a hospital to undergo a minor surgery and get a blood transfusion that has been mismatched,” he said. “There’s been a problem, and that patient dies. That patient shouldn’t have died because he was coming in for a minor transfusion.
“I can’t imagine being the doctor who sits down with the family and says, ‘Well, the operation went fine, but we messed up on the blood and your loved one died.’ That’s a completely preventable error.”
While Brooks acknowledges that it’s an emotive topic for some, he warns that it’s exceedingly important to consider Americans’ safety before all other arguments.
“The thing is, we don’t know what’s coming down the road. There may be other infectious diseases that come into the blood supply and it may infect the men who’ve had sex with men and IV drug users. It may affect other groups. We don’t know. We really can’t make exceptions for people because it hurts their feelings,” he said.
“I think a lot of people see being able to donate blood as validation. That’s not our job. Validating people’s feelings is not our job. Our job is to ensure a safe blood supply.”
Dr. Brooks has advocated protection of the nation’s blood supply for many years. The following is a video of his argument to retain the FDA ban on homosexual blood donation during a 2010 debate at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.: