WASHINGTON — Gay and bisexual men can’t donate blood in the United States, under regulations imposed at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. But times have changed since the ban was put into place, and there is now a push to open the doors of blood banks to these potential donors.
The ban dates back to 1983, when the disease was shrouded in mystery and fear. Because gay men were at high risk, the Food and Drug Administration decided to exclude them from the donor pool in order to keep the HIV virus from being passed through transfusions.
“We did not know a lot about the disease; we did not know how to screen blood properly,” says Dr. Raymond Martins of Whitman Walker Health, one of the first clinics to provide AIDS testing and treatment in the D.C. area.
But over the years, he says, researchers came to understand the intricacies of AIDS and how to screen donated blood for HIV: “It’s light years better than it was back then.”
He says gay and bisexual men have talked about wanting to give blood for several reasons: “It will destigmatize the gay male population, and then also have more blood available to save people’s lives.”
How many lives? A California institute analyzed data from several national surveys and the American Red Cross and found that lifting the gay donor ban could conceivably be a boon for the blood supply.
Researchers at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, say lifting the ban could result in an extra 615,300 pints of blood each year.
The American Red Cross believes each blood donation has the potential to help save three lives. The authors of the study did the math and said those new donations “could be used to save 1.8 million people.”
They say the risk of tainted blood will not go to zero if gay men are allowed to donate, but it won’t be much higher than it is today.
On its website, the FDA says it is constantly reviewing its policies, but does not plan to lift the ban until there is scientific evidence showing it will not increase the risk of infection for patients getting transfusions.
Meanwhile, an advisory committee to the Department of Health and Human Services has announced plans to discuss the issue at a meeting next month.