FDA ban on blood donations from gay men challenged
January 13, 2000
From Correspondent Rusty Dornin
SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- While San Francisco experiences an acute shortage of blood, one gay city official is waging a campaign to change a federal policy that bars him, or any gay man who has engaged in any homosexual behavior since 1977, from donating blood.
San Francisco City Supervisor Mark Leno says that policy is no longer necessary.
"After the donation, all the blood is tested and re- tested," said Leno. "In fact, in the case of HIV, it's tested three different times."
While Leno wants the federal ban against donations from gay men completely lifted, some blood bank officials say it might be effective to loosen the FDA policy to allow those who have not had a male-to-male relationship in one year or more to give blood.
"I think we are so cautious to ensure that the unit of blood is safe that sometimes we are not accepting donors that perhaps might be completely safe," said Dr. Nora Hirschler of the Blood Center of the Pacific.
Dr. Michael Busch of the University of California at San Francisco serves on an FDA panel for blood safety. He'd like to see the restrictions relaxed somewhat, but, he says, the bottom line is the accuracy of the blood-screening tests.
"The tests are not perfect," said Busch. "And even though they are very good and we have closed the window virtually completely, there remains a small but significant rate of test error."
Some gays say they wonder why there is no screening for unsafe heterosexual behavior.
"If you had contact with a man 23 years ago and you're another man, they're not going to allow you to give blood," noted San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano.
"But at that same time, they won't apply that standard to a heterosexual male who might have had sex two nights ago and gotten exposed (to HIV)," said Ammiano.
While the gay community says 23 years is too restrictive, IV drug users and people who have had a variety of infectious diseases are banned from giving blood for life.
During the FDA's annual review of its restrictions, it will again reconsider its policy about gay male blood donors.
"There is a lot of political and public pressure not to relax the gay deferral," said Busch.
Gay men like Mark Leno also believe the reasons the ban remains in place may be based on more than medical facts.
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