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February 9, 2007

Cleveland tells the FDA: Let gay men donate blood

Cleveland--City council has a message for the federal Food and Drug Administration: Barring men who have sex with men from donating blood is outdated, and the policy needs to change.

Council passed a resolution February 5 calling the 24-year-old ban “outdated” and “discriminatory.”

While the resolution doesn’t carry the weight of law, its sponsor, Ward 14 councilor Joe Santiago, says he will distribute it nationally. He hopes enough cities will join Cleveland with similar measures that the federal agency will have to pay attention.

Santiago, the city’s first openly gay elected official, was officially joined by 15 other councilors. Five more supported the resolution, but weren’t present when the vote was taken.

The FDA policy calls for the Red Cross and other blood collection agencies to turn away any man who has had had sex with another man, even once, since 1977. It was set in 1983, two years after AIDS was discovered in the U.S. and before any blood tests were available.

However, as the council resolution points out, the policy doesn’t distinguish between safe and unsafe sex, nor take into account monogamy or the prospective donor’s HIV status.

It ignores heterosexual sex, no matter how promiscuous, although women account for a quarter of all new U.S. infections with HIV.

The first blood test for AIDS was developed in 1985. It detected antibodies to HIV, not the virus itself, and these often do not appear during a “window period” of up to six months after infection.

The current test can detect HIV almost immediately. It was approved by the FDA in 2002 and also tests for hepatitis C.

Council’s resolution points this out, adding that the chance of receiving an infected unit of blood is more than one in two million, leaving no scientific basis for the ban.

The ban was promoted by the American Red Cross of Southern California in 2000, when it urged the FDA advisory council to continue the policy when it was under review. The committee voted, on the Red Cross’ recommendation, to continue the ban 8-7.

Even with the new HIV test, the Southern California group continued to support the ban as recently as August, 2005, when a spokesperson for the group told the Gay People’s Chronicle that changing the policy would lead to more infections.

The Southern California Red Cross based its conclusions on an unscientific opinion article in the blood collection magazine they publish. The article is full of stereotypes about gay men and lacks evidence backing them up.

The article begins by telling transfusion professionals that men who have sex with men have “unique social relations, behavior patterns and experiences which relate to disease processes that could affect the blood supply.”

The piece then goes on to make its case by talking about circuit parties, alcohol and drug use and anecdotal claims that gay men aren’t interested in monogamy.

“Researchers have found that fidelity within MSM relationships is often not defined in terms of sexual behavior but rather by emotional commitment,” it says.

The American Association of Blood Banks and all American Red Cross affiliates abandoned any remaining support for the policy last year, calling it “unwarranted.”

Still, the FDA, which is controlled by a number of Reagan appointees, still supports it.

Cleveland’s council worries that the policy is cutting off potential donors during a time of blood emergency.

Karen Kelley, an official with American Red Cross Northern Ohio Blood Services, accepted the resolution on behalf of the agency.

Kelley, whose agency serves 19 counties, told council that there was a shortage of 260 pints during the 24 hours before the meeting. She attributed this to cancellation of blood collection drives because of the cold weather, people being ill, and other seasonal factors.

“We have been over a month in blood emergency,” said Kelley.

This emergency was what brought the matter to Santiago’s attention.

The city held an emergency blood drive in City Hall on January 14, and Santiago went to donate.

“I knew I would be rejected,” said Santiago, “but it was important to try.”

“Then I started getting calls from other people who were also rejected,” Santiago said, “and that’s when I got both angry and inspired.”

Kelley said she thinks the Cleveland resolution is a national first, and that even though it is not law, it represents a change in society and will cause the issue to be noticed.

“I’m going to call the Red Cross executives in Columbus and Washington tomorrow, and tell them of the resolution,” said Kelley.

“That kind of community statement has an effect.”






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