Tech + Health

07.11.14

Activists Fight Antiquated Policy With National Gay Blood Drive

The FDA’s ‘lifetime deferral’ means gay and bisexual men can’t donate blood. Now, activists are leading a ‘gay blood drive,’ bringing along hetero friends and family to stand in their place.

Gay-rights activist Ryan James Yeznak and a couple of thousand of his friends and supporters are out for blood. Yeznak is spearheading a national gay blood drive on July 11, where gay and bisexual men wanting to donate bring proxies to do so in their stead.

That’s because gay and bisexual men—or men who have sex with men, as the official terminology goes—are banned from donating blood in the U.S. And while we’re on official terminology, the ban is not a ban. Rather, it is a “lifetime deferral.”

“The goal is to do the blood drive every year until blood donation is ultimately free of discrimination,” Yeznak says. “Until it does not specifically target gay and bisexual men.”

Rewind to three years ago. Yeznak found himself explaining to his boss and colleagues at a former job why he couldn’t join the office blood drive for tornado victims. “That was the first time I experienced alienation and I felt like I was different from them for no reason other than my sexual orientation,” he explains.

The logic behind the indefinite deferral, according to the guardians of the policy—in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—is simple enough. Men who have sex with men are a group at risk for HIV, and ensuring the blood supply is safe is the highest priority, the regulator says. Although all blood is tested, there is a brief window of between 15 to 30 days immediately after infection when HIV cannot be detected. The policy—which is not a regulation but a recommendation made to blood establishments, according to the FDA—is there to decrease the risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS.

Outside the U.S., however, countries have been revising similar policies on gay and bisexual men donating blood. South Africa struck the question of male-to-male sex from its donor questionnaire (PDF) in May this year, replacing it with a question designed to assess sexual behavior, as opposed to orientation—something gay blood donation activists in the U.S. say they want.

In South Africa, anyone who has had sexual contact with a new partner in the last six months is subject to a deferral period of a further six months before being able to donate—regardless of gender or sexual orientation. And this is from a country that might be justified in having greater concerns over HIV than the U.S.

In Germany, a petition is circulating to collect 50,000 signatures to force a review of the indefinite deferral rule by the powerful German Medical Association—lawmakers’ go-to organization when it comes to health policy. Matthias Schmidt, creative director of DDB Tribal Berlin, the agency leading the campaign, says the policy was at odds with Germany’s otherwise sexually liberal thinking.

If new approaches to blood and donor screening can assure blood recipients are not placed at an increased risk of HIV or other transfusion transmitted diseases, it “will consider a change to its current policy.”

“It really feels like a rule from yesterday, full of prejudice,” Schmidt says. “The deeper you dig, the less you understand why this is happening in Germany right now. This doesn't fit with Germany, so we decided to do something about it.”

From a medical perspective, experts are divided. Paul Strengers, medical director at the Dutch Sanquin Blood Supply Foundation, says that it is precisely this societal openness to sex that informs the policies on indefinite deferral. Regulators don’t want to change these policies because the data tells them they shouldn’t, he says.

For Strengers, the right to donate weighed against the right of patients to completely safe blood leaves doctors with an easy decision. “It’s the patients that we are doing this for, we should not just change because of political pressure,” he says.

Until tests are developed to detect the virus immediately after infection, indefinite deferral is the way to go, according to Strengers. “But we’re not even close to that,” Strengers says.

Back in the U.S., the American Medical Association (AMA) disagrees. A statement sent by the American Medical Association to The Daily Beast says it “strongly supports eliminating current public policies that require lifetime deferral of blood donation by men who have sex with men on both scientific and ethical grounds.” It goes on to say that the “latest scientific evidence” should determine how long donation deferral periods should be.

DDB Tribal Berlin’s Schmidt says it remains to be seen if the petition will result in new legislation. After two and a half weeks, half the required number of signatures has been secured—a reason to be optimistic.

And Yeznak, believes a policy change in America is on the horizon, he just doesn’t know when. “I think it is inevitable the rules will be changed. That's the frustrating part,” he says. “We don't understand why it hasn't happened sooner. And why it isn't happening today.”

The FDA hasn’t ruled it out. If new approaches to blood and donor screening can assure blood recipients are not placed at an increased risk of HIV or other transfusion transmitted diseases, it “will consider a change to its current policy.”

When it does happen, Yeznak said his Gay Blood Drive would still be an annual event.

“The way I envision it, even after we’re eligible to donate I think the drive would be great to have year after year, just as a reminder of how much our community can contribute,” he says.