Ban on gay blood donors reconsidered

HOUSTON Gay men have not been allowed to donate blood since 1985, because of a fear of HIV. It's a practice some say is way outdated and unnecessary.

Senator John Kerry is among a group of politicians asking for what they call a discriminatory ban to be lifted, and a local activist says advances in testing are all the more reason to abolish the ban.

As volunteer blood donors give the Gift of Life at the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center, one segment of the population you will not see is a gay donor. They've been banned since the 1980s.

But on Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration was reviewing the decades-old ban.

A local activist says it's long overdue.

"Well, the ban is archaic," said Kris Banks, president of the Houston Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transsexual political caucus.

The FDA ban was created in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic.

And since then, Question 35 has remained on the screening sheet. It asks, "From 1977 to present have you had sexual contact with another male, even once?"

"It was created in the early '80s when fear of HIV/AIDS was at its highest, and now we have ways for testing for HIV/AIDS, and we do it on all the blood," Banks said. "So it's not really something that we need anymore, and all it's doing is keeping out a big pool of potential donors."

The Red Cross and America's Blood Centers account for 100 percent of all blood collection in the U.S.

The Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center is an affiliate of America's Blood Centers and they say consensus is now a 12-month deferral instead of a ban.

Testing, since the 1980s, they say, is much shorter and more sophisticated.

"We used to say that an individual who was infected with HIV, it would take us minimum 56 days to determine that they were truly infected -- and that was back in the 80s," the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center Director Dr. Beth Hartwell said. "Now, that period of time is 11 days."

But there is also the question of margin of error. The Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center says it is about one in 2.6 million.

"Driving in Houston is more dangerous," Hartwell said.

At least one new study estimates that an additional 219,000 additional pints of blood could be donated annually if the ban on gay men were lifted. The advisory committee is expected to make recommendations on Friday.
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