by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
On paper, 17-year-old Jeffrey Thompson, a student at Lakes High School in Lakewood, Washington, is just like his peers. The high school senior's grade point average is at a steady 3.0 because, as he puts it, "I work very hard at school." Jeffrey lives with his family on Fort Lewis, an army post not too far from the Seattle area. Since moving to Washington from Germany in September of last year, the teen has been involved with the yearbook staff and environmental and DECA clubs at his school. Off paper, Jeffrey is a proud Gay young man who works in the fashion world as a production assistant, coordinator, and stylist. He does not make any attempt to hide his sexual orientation and believes that he is entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as hetero-America. He is fierce, fabulous, and & unable to donate blood.
Under current federal policy in the United States, most Gay and Bisexual men are permanently excluded from donating blood. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has, since 1985, enforced a policy in which any man who has had sex with another man (MSM), even once, since 1977, is permanently "deferred" from donating blood, regardless of the man's actual HIV status. This policy, initially implemented during the early years of the AIDS crisis in an effort to protect blood transfusion recipients from inadvertently contracting HIV from infected blood, is one component of a set of donor eligibility policies that temporarily or permanently defer prospective blood donors thought to be at elevated risk of infection of HIV or other transmissible diseases like hepatitis.
The most restrictive permanent deferral applies only to a limited group of prospective donors. In addition to the MSM restriction, other groups permanently deferred are individuals who have received payment for sex since 1977, intravenous drug users, and individuals who have tested positive for HIV. The FDA has upheld the MSM policy through the years based on data that Gay and Bisexual men continue to be, as a group, at the highest risk of contracting HIV. However, others at elevated risk of HIV or other transmissible disease are subject to significantly less restrictive deferrals - or no deferral at all. A non-MSM individual who has had sexual contact with a commercial sex worker or HIV-positive partner, for example, is deferred from donating blood for only 12 months after that sexual contact. Certain groups now known to be at high risk of HIV, such as African American women, are subject to no deferral at all.
Although the FDA MSM deferral policy has been in place for some 25 years, many LGBT persons, particularly in Jeffrey's age group, are unaware of the policy until they are faced with the decision of donating blood.
"I SIGNED UP LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE"
Last month, when Jeffrey heard that the Cascade Regional Blood Services would be sending a team to Lakes High School for a blood drive, he was more than happy to help.
"When it comes down to it, most anybody will do what they can to help save lives," Jeffrey told SGN. "Donating blood is easy. So I signed up to participate just like everybody else."
On the day of the blood drive, Jeffrey said he was asked to fill out a questionnaire. "One of the questions was if I had had any sexual relations with a man," he said. "I put 'yes.'"
According to Cascade Regional Blood Services officials, donors undergo a health history and are given a mini-physical prior to donating. In Jeffrey's case, a mini-physical was unnecessary because, by answering "yes" on the health history questionnaire, he had disqualified himself as a donor.
"I was taken into a room and told that I couldn't give blood because I was Gay and that I was permanently deferred," said Jeffrey. "I've always been taught by my mom to be strong and independent. Being told that my blood was deemed unworthy was horrible. I wanted to cry, but I didn't. To some, this may not be a big deal. For me this was just another thing to add to the long list of things I am not allowed to participate in due to my sexual orientation."
Jeffrey, who admits to being sexually active as a teen, says that, according to his last HIV test, he is negative of any disease. "The nurse tried to make me feel better but I was upset," he said. "I felt targeted."
Jeffery is not alone; there is an active debate within the FDA, American Red Cross, and with Washington, D.C, lawmakers - Senator John Kerry, in particular - about ending the "Gay blood ban" due to advances in the way blood is tested before it can be used in a transfusion.
Still, regardless of which side of the argument you fall on, there is no denying that blood is in need and that all too often there is a shortage in the supply but an increase in demand.
According to the Cascade Regional Blood Services website, someone needs blood every three seconds, one out of every seven people entering a hospital needs blood, approximately 38,000 units of blood are used each day in the United States, 37% of the nation's population is eligible to donate but only 5% actually donate regularly, and a single teaspoon of blood can save a baby's life.
The truth is, the average adult has 10-11 pints of blood in their body and - since there is no substitute for human blood and almost all of us will need blood products in our lifetime - it might be time to rethink the FDA MSM policy. Cascade Regional Blood Services says that if donors gave two to four times a year, blood shortages could be avoided.
A DRIVE FOR CHANGE
According to a 2010 study, "A Drive For Change: Reforming U.S. Blood Donation Policies," the Gay blood ban is outdated.
At the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States in the early 1980s, the disease was a terrifying mystery to the general public, the medical and public health communities, and policy makers. The earliest signs of AIDS appeared in the Gay male population, leading experts to initially (and incorrectly) speculate that AIDS was a "Gay disease." It was only after AIDS cases began to emerge in other groups - including hemophiliacs and others who had received blood transfusions - that it become understood that AIDS was caused by a virus, HIV, that could be transmitted through certain contact with an infected individual's semen, blood, or breast milk, regardless of the individuals' sexual orientation.
For young Gay men like Jeffrey, the prejudice that "you are Gay so you don't have protected sex and you have AIDS" is just plain wrong. "It's very insulting and a dangerous insinuation," he told SGN. "It doesn't make any sense to point fingers at one whole group of people for their orientation because of a disease that affects everyone, not just Gays. I've always used protection; I believe that anytime you don't use a condom, it's like playing Russian roulette. HIV/AIDS is not something to be messed with."
Still, Jeffrey cannot donate blood - even though he is documented as being HIV negative - because of the MSM policy.
It is now a quarter-century after the FDA first instituted the current MSM donor deferral, initially conceived as an emergency response to the horrifying AIDS epidemic. According to the "A Drive For Change" authors, great strides have been made in HIV/AIDS prevention, detection, and treatment over those 25 years, as well as in recognition that HIV/AIDS in a not a Gay disease, but one that affects men and women, Gay and straight, and members of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
"Despite these important developments - and the fact that the HIV epidemic in the United States in 2010, unquestionably serious in its own right, bears little resemblance to the vexatious and frightening AIDS crisis of 1985 - America's blood donation policies for Gay and Bisexual men have remained wholly unchanged through the present day," reads the report.
According to the FDA, the rigorous screening procedures of donated blood have been credited with virtually eliminating the risk of HIV transmission through the blood supply in the United States.
The FDA requires all blood centers, including Cascade Regional Blood Services, to use standard operating procedures to rigorously monitor compliance with regulations, and to use current testing technology. Included in the routine safeguards are health screenings for all donors; donation procedure calling for single-use, sterile supplies, and donors who have positive test results for infectious diseases being notified confidentially and possibly being deferred from donating again. In addition, prior to release for transfusion, each unit of blood undergoes extensive laboratory testing to screen for the following diseases: ABO/Rh blood type, atypical red blood cell antibodies, syphilis, hepatitis B (two separate tests), HIV/AIDS (two separate tests), HTLV, hepatitis C (two separate tests), West Nile Virus, and Chagas.
Jeffrey's blood, for all intents and purposes, is clean. The teen admits that he understands the scary history of the early days of the AIDS crisis and recognizes the need to make sure that blood is clean of disease before it is given to someone in need, but what he can't understand and would like to see changed is the exclusion of Gay and Bisexual men because of an archaic policy.
Jeffrey said he has "plenty of straight friends" whom he would never accept blood from. "Now, don't get me wrong," he told SGN, "I believe in sexual liberation and sexual freedom. I also have no hard feelings for straight people, either. I just want to point out that it doesn't make any sense to point fingers at any one whole group of people. It also doesn't make any sense to lump Gay and Bisexual men into the same deferral policy as a prostitute."
A Drive for Change says, "Fortunately, the opportunity to improve the fairness - and overall effectiveness - of blood screening policies in the United States is stronger now than ever before."
Over the last several years, each of the major blood bank organizations, including, most recently, the American Red Cross, have expressed support for abolishing the current policy for MSM donors, supported by contemporary blood screening technologies that minimize the risk of accidental HIV transmission through blood transfusions.
The FDA has expressed willingness to change the policy if evidence can be shown that a new policy would not increase the risk of disease transmission to blood donor recipients.
According to the American Red Cross, a number of other countries have recently relaxed, or are considering relaxing, restrictions on MSM blood donors.
"Given this coalescence of science, public opinion, support from the public health community, and international momentum toward change, the time is right to advocate for blood donation policy reform in the United States," said A Drive for Change in their report.
Jeffrey says he has taken all of this as a learning experience and, in an attempt to educate his classmates, read a statement over the school's P.A. system about the "Gay blood ban" and standing up for what you believe in.
"There is always going to be hatred in the world against someone for one thing or another," he said. "I am proud of who I am. I would like to be an example of my generation, and I commend anyone who fights off hatred and soldiers on to inner and outer happiness."
"For a LGBT person, every day is a struggle or a fight for equality," said Jeffrey. "It takes a lot of guts and moxie to go out there and be who you are - which is a funny thing to say. I hope that, through my actions, I can do my part to liberate my generation and take a stand."
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