(Memphis) Men who have had sex with other men have been barred from donating blood for almost 30 years, due to fear of spreading HIV. But advanced science is reigniting a conversation that could bring change to the existing blood donor screening questionnaire.
Every man trying to donate blood has encountered this screening question: “From 1977 to the present, have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?”
But that question may change, depending on the results of a review requested by about 70 lawmakers, including Congressman Steve Cohen.
"We know that the hysteria around AIDS was such that the criteria was made too broadly," Cohen said. "[Health and Human Services] They deal with facts. Now in the public, sometimes people deal with stereotypes or images that aren’t accurate. It’s not scientifically based."
Blood centers across the United States have gone to the FDA repeatedly, with requests to revisit this question as well. In recent years, several countries like Japan, Finland, the United Kingdom and Canada, have all changed their questionnaire to reflect behavior in the last year or last few years, rather than since 1977.
With a high need for blood donors, experts are seeking the largest donor base while keeping the blood supply as safe as possible.
According to one of the national medical directors of Lifeblood, Dr. Mary Townsend, the question about men having sex with other men is intended to screen for people who might have HIV or Hepatitis.
Dr. Townsend at one point chaired the board that created the current questionnaire.
She said that 13 tests are done on every blood sample donated. Three of those tests are for HIV, two for Hepatitis B and two for Hepatitis C. The remaining tests check for other diseases.
The tests are extremely sensitive, to the point where there are sometimes false positives.
HIV or Hepatitis C can be detected 9 to 11 days after one contracts it.
Dr. Townsend explains how sensitive the tests really are, by comparing it to airport security. "The metal detector: they're looking for a gun. But they pick up a bobby pin. That's the sort of equivalent of HIV testing in blood centers."
In fact, only 10 people have contracted HIV out of the last 182 million blood transfusions.
With such advanced testing, Dr. Townsend said that blood centers still ask the question because the tests could be administered too soon. For example, a person could have come into the blood center fewer than 9 days after contracting HIV.
As of March 2012, there are 1.2 million people in the U.S. who are HIV positive.
Half of them got it through male sexual intercourse. The other half got HIV through heterosexual sex or IV drug use.
Of the new cases each year, 61 percent are men who have had sex with men.
Will Batts, the executive director of the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, has tried to give blood every few years to see if the rules have changed.
"I wouldn’t go if I even had a cold. I mean, I just wouldn’t go in there if I knew that there was something that might be an impediment. I know that I don’t have that impediment, so it’s frustrating that I can’t go donate blood," Batts said.
He said he's civic-minded, and while giving blood is not a right, it is a part of participating in society. He said that the gay community would like to participate fully, like everyone else.
Once, when a friend's child was in the hospital and needed a rare blood type, he sent an email blast as a call for help.
He got a response from a friend, who said that he has that rare blood type, but can't give blood, because he's gay.
Batts said, "Whatever questions you have, I’ll answer honestly. You make your rules. I don’t think it’s fair, but I’m going to live by your rules."
Paul Houghland of the Family Action Council of Tennessee is glad those rules exist. He's a "gallon donor" and gives blood whenever he can.
Referring to the 10 people who got HIV out of the last 182 million blood transfusions, Houghland said, "That’s the proof for why the current policy should stay in place. Would you want to be one of those 10?"
Houghland is morally opposed to homosexuality, but is also concerned about increasing the risk of disease.
"It’s not a discrimination policy. It’s a safety policy," he said.
Of course, in a situation where he might need blood to live, he would take any donation, especially since he would never know whom the blood came from.
But Houghland said he would always have that qualm and would not feel comfortable knowingly accepting blood from a man who's had sex with another man.
Dr. Townsend said that a way to broaden the donor base may be changing the question to reflect more recent behavior. To be extra careful, one could ask a man who's had sex with another man to come back to the blood center to test a second time, after the window of 9 to 11 days.
To keep in perspective, she said, "If you happen to be a donor who’s offended, we’re really sorry. If you happen to be a patient going into the hospital, and you’re going to get blood, you’re going to be glad that we do everything we can to keep the blood supply safe."