Friday September 14, 2001

Despite Blood Shortage Gays Can't Donate

By Randy Dotinga,



SUMMARY: Despite wanting to help the victims of this week's terrorism, gay men still cannot donate blood and are being turned away from donation centers.

If you're a gay man thinking about donating blood this week, forget it -- unless you're a virgin. Even during the current national crisis, nearly all homosexual and bisexual men are still banned from opening their veins to help others.

"There's a large group of people who are willing to participate, but they're excluded. It's not only discriminatory, but it's counterproductive to address the problems we're facing now," said Nathan Purkiss, legislative aide for San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, who has pushed for looser rules.

Blood donations, which have been dipping to precarious levels in recent years, skyrocketed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. Officials in both cities say they have enough blood for now, but donations are urged over the next several weeks to keep the national supply steady.

Since 1985, the federal Food & Drug Administration has banned all blood donations from any man who has had sex with a man since 1977, even once. Also, women may not give blood if they had sex over the last 12 months with a man who had gay sex in the last 24 years.

Blood banks must ask donors a series of direct and blunt questions about their health, their sexual histories and recent travel. The questions "serve two purposes -- to make sure it's good for you to donate, and it's good for the recipient (to receive)," said Deborah Verkouw, spokeswoman for the Blood Centers of the Pacific, which serve the San Francisco Bay Area.

People infected with HIV, of course, are also forbidden to give blood, as are IV drug users, prostitutes and their clients, and others considered at high risk. Blood banks are bracing for a new set of rules that will ban donations from some travelers to the United Kingdom and France because of concerns about Creutzfedlt-Jakob Disease, also known as "Mad Cow" Disease.

Last year, an FDA advisory committee voted 7-6 to keep the current policies about gay men in effect. Some officials had suggested that men be allowed to donate if they hadn't had sex with a man for five years or one year. Half the nation's blood centers supported such a change, but the American Red Cross did not.

An estimated 2 to 3 people a year become infected with HIV through blood transfusions, in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when thousands became ill. It's not clear why the virus isn't detected in the blood supply, but it could be due to human error or failures in the tests themselves, said former advisory committee chairman Dr. F. Blaine Hollinger, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

But on the whole, he said, the nation's blood supply is "extremely safe." Many of those who favored the current policy were concerned about diseases other than AIDS, according to Hollinger, especially since gay men are susceptible to many illnesses. "The risk is not so much with the diseases we can test for. It's for the diseases we don't know about," he said. "That's a difficult thing to resolve."

However, Hollinger supported changing the policy to allow gay men to donate if they hadn't had sex in recent years.

Without any changes in sight, it appears that gay men will continue to be turned away when they try to donate. At least one gay man learned he couldn't give blood when he visited the Blood Centers of the Pacific this week.

"He wasn't happy with the answer," said spokeswoman Verkouw. "People feel helpless when buildings are blown up, and they want to help."