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April 7, 2010

Gay student: FDA blood donation policy discriminates

DePauw junior encouraging blood donation in his place

TERRE HAUTE — A university student who says a federal policy discriminates against gay males who want to donate blood is taking a creative step to raise awareness of the issue.

Adam Gilbert, a junior at DePauw University, is asking people to become “Advocates for Adam: Donate His Weight” by giving blood April 12 and 13 at an American Red Cross blood drive on the university campus in Greencastle.

“As a homosexual man, I cannot donate blood,” Gilbert said. “I hope to encourage people to donate blood in my place, to raise awareness of the FDA policy and advocate for its change.”

The Food and Drug Administration established the policy in 1983 in response to the spread of HIV within the gay community in the early 1980s. The policy put “men who have had sex with men (or MSM), even once, since 1977” on a lifetime deferral from donating blood.

Gilbert said that the advances in blood testing and HIV screening for all blood donations received today make the policy outdated and discriminatory.

“This campaign is about educating people on discrimination that still exists today with a hope that, by changing this policy, we can positively impact our nation’s blood banks,” Gilbert said. “Since I can’t donate to show my support, I’m asking for help.”

The FDA policy was recently challenged by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and 17 other U.S. senators who sent a letter to the federal agency asking for reconsideration of the policy on the basis of discrimination. Kerry stated in March that even people who have had heterosexual sex with an HIV-positive partner are allowed to donate blood after a one-year waiting period, but a man who has had protected sex with a monogamous male partner, even one time 33 years ago, is barred for life from donating blood.

Gilbert said he hopes that Indiana Sens. Evan Bayh and Richard Lugar will add their support to Kerry’s letter.

The FDA has a lengthy page in the “Vaccines, Blood and Biologics” section of its Web site at www.fda.gov to address the questions about MSM blood donations.

The FDA’s current policy has been in place since 1992, and the blood donor policy was modified as new scientific data and more accurate tests for HIV and hepatitis became available. It is estimated that the HIV risk from a unit of blood has been reduced to about 1 per 2 million in the United States. That small risk comes from the so-called “window period” donations which exist very early after a person is infected, where current testing methods cannot detect all infections.

Agencies that conduct blood drives are required to follow the FDA policy.

Wendy Mehringer, director of public relations and marketing for the Indiana Blood Center, said the FDA’s MSM policy comes up from time to time at high schools and university campuses across the nation. There have been instances in California where students have organized at campus blood drives to protest the policy as discriminatory, leading to universities banning blood drives on campus. Such activism has hurt the nation’s blood supply, she said, even if that may not be the intent of the protests.

“The supply is needed,” Mehringer said. “Whether you like the policy or not, the supply is needed.”

That is why Gilbert said he is still encouraging people to donate blood, hopefully enough to equal his weight. He is also asking people to sign a petition urging the FDA to modify the policy. Advocates for Adam will also be given rainbow bandages to wear on their arms to show their support for blood donations and the policy modification.

In Terre Haute, the local chapter of PFLAG, an outreach group for parents and friends of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, agrees that the FDA policy is discriminatory against gay men.

PFLAG President Kasandra Housley called the policy “extremely discriminatory to assume that heterosexuals are not going to be carriers of HIV.”

Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com.

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