Anyone who’s donated blood to a certified blood bank in the United States answers the same question: “Are you a male who has had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977?”
Some men lie when they answer, like junior “Andy,” who asked his real name not be used because of the sensitive nature of his situation. He estimated he’s given blood four times since he was old enough to meet the age requirement.
Andy said the policy is prejudicial.
“You’re excluding a large population that was willing to give blood,” he said. “My blood is tested, just as everyone else’s is.”
When the “yes” box is checked, employees or volunteers then have two options – tell the would-be donor he cannot give blood, or “defer” the sample.
“You can donate, but they end up throwing it away,” said Mark Braun, pathology professor in the IU Medical Sciences Program.
Braun said the guidelines are very strict.
“There are a lot of things that will exclude a person,” he said.
Blood banks, like the American Red Cross and the Indiana Blood Center, are following orders from the Food and Drug Administration, where Richard Klein, who handles HIV/AIDS matters in the Office of Special Health Issues, in turn cites data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s seen as a very high-risk pool,” he said, and statistics back up that statement.
According to the CDC “male-to-male sexual contact” was listed as the cause of more than two-thirds of all cases in male adults and adolescents with HIV/AIDS diagnosed during 2005.
“High-risk heterosexual contact” led to 15 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases, and injection drug use led to 13 percent. Braun said the cases are on the rise again from the 1980s.
“It’s starting to come back, is what we’re seeing,” Braun said of the number of diagnosed cases, even among the younger, educated generation of gay men. “The younger you are, the more invulnerable you feel.”
Klein cites “efficiency” as a reason to exclude male homosexual donors because the testing process is “resource-intensive” – in other words, costly.
But, Wendy Mehringer, director of public relations and marketing for the Indiana Blood
Center, said that among the battery of 12 tests every donation undergoes are two for the HIV retrovirus and HIV antibodies.
“It’s definitely not a cost issue,” she said.
Mehringer also said this procedure of testing is standard practice for most, if not all, certified blood banks.
“The HIV virus, in some people, will hide in the cells and will not replicate for years,” Braun said.
Though the antibody test will show positive even with dormant viral strains, it can take three to six months from the point of infection; until then, the test will come up negative. However, for someone who has not had sexual contact with a new partner in more than six months – via fidelity or celibacy – this would not be a concern.
As Doug Bauder, coordinator of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Student Support Services, pointed out, it doesn’t matter how much sex anyone else has, or with whom, as long as it isn’t male-on-male.
“It certainly is discriminatory from our perspective,” he said. “It’s insane that this law is still on the books.”
There is no FDA restriction against lesbian donations, unless they are bisexual and fall under the category of someone who has had sexual contact with anyone in the high-risk HIV groups that include gay men.
This is because vaginal secretion-to-saliva contacts have a very low transmission rate.
Mehringer said the current policy “seems short-sighted.”
Bloomington’s Indiana Blood Center field representative Lindsey Berry said while there is currently not a blood shortage in Indiana, it has happened in the past, and with a shelf-life of 42 days, it is a possibility in the future.
“Blood is a community resource,” Berry said.