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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 11 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 28
Changing the ban, blood drive on Capitol Hill
Section One
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Changing the ban, blood drive on Capitol Hill

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Seattle Gay Blood Drive - Friday, July 11
The Seattle Gay Blood Drive will be held on Capitol Hill on Friday, July 11. Seattle joins The National Gay Blood Drive, which is taking place in more than 60 cities on Friday, July 11. Seattle Gay News, along with Social Outreach Seattle, are asking Gay and Bisexual men to bring eligible donors to the drive location at Seattle Central College (1701 Broadway) from 1 to 7 p.m. on Friday, July 11. Make a statement. Stand up and say that modern science no longer suggests that Gay blood is bad blood. www.gayblooddrive.com.

The fear dates back to 1983. Some patients being treated for hemophilia started displaying AIDS-related symptoms after receiving routine blood transfusions. It was a nightmare. HIV-positive donors were unwittingly infecting the national blood supply. Out of those tragic days a poster child was born when 14-year-old hemophiliac Ryan White put a public face to the scourge after receiving infected blood.

And that was all she wrote. It was decided that men who have sex with men, or MSM as we are now called, were banned for life from donating blood.

How much has changed since the dark days of the epidemic that killed so many and made every day men and women into heroes or angels as they held the frail hand of a friend, loved one - hell - even a stranger in the last moments of their life as AIDS ravaged the body, the mind, the soul.

A lot (obviously); for one thing the FDA had no way of testing blood or plasma for HIV prior to March 1985, but they do now. In 1985, pressured to take action, much of the world followed America's example and banned their Gay men from donating blood.

Currently, in addition to the United States, several other countries still have lifetime bans against Gay blood donors, including France, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark.

But all of that is set to change. Modern science is marvelous and while there will always be the doomsday AIDS Inc. groups and hypochondriac patients who fear the very letters H, I, V, and A, I, D, S, recently other parts of the world have started to reconsider the policy's relevance.

For example, Italy and Spain no longer specifically exclude Gay men, while Australia, Brazil, and Japan defer one year from sexual contact. In 2011, the United Kingdom replaced its lifetime ban with a one-year deferral. And last May, Canada reversed its lifetime ban by cutting it to a five-year deferral.

The fact is there hasn't been an HIV transmission from a plasma-derived product since 1987.

Current blood testing effectiveness
According to Men's Health magazine, blood tests are among the many marvels of modern medicine. They are the crux of every argument for overturning the ban on Gay donors worldwide.

When the first HIV tests arrived in 1985, they were relatively rudimentary, designed to detect high levels of antibodies in the blood - which was only effective if HIV had evolved beyond its 'window period.' If the infection was new, it could go undetected.

'There was a 45-day window, approximately, between when we believed a donor was infected and how long it took them to produce antibodies,' says Susan Stramer, Ph.D., executive scientific officer of the American Red Cross and president of the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB).

That changed in 1999 thanks to a faster and far more accurate process called Nucleic Acid Testing - NAT, for short. Unlike the EIA test, the NAT can detect the amount of actual virus in the bloodstream, not just the antibodies produced to fight it. 'People often say it's like finding a needle in a haystack,' says Attila Lorincz, Ph.D., professor of molecular epidemiology at Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine in London and author of Nucleic Acid Testing for Human Disease. 'Now just imagine if you could send millions of tiny robots into the haystack to find that needle for you. When one of them finds the virus, we instruct it to make roughly 100 million copies. It's like a miniature nuclear explosion inside the test tube. All of a sudden, a positive result becomes very easy for us to see.'

Literally, every sample of blood collected at blood banks in the United States is now screened this way for at least eight diseases - including HIV, HTLV, hepatitis B and C, West Nile virus, Chagas disease, and syphilis, and in some cases cytomegalovirus (CMV) - using a combination of NAT and antibody tests. And as those tests have improved, so has the amount of time it takes to tell if a particular sample of blood is clean.

Within seven to 10 days we can say with 99.9 percent accuracy whether or not a blood sample is HIV-positive. The chance of an HIV-positive blood sample testing negative after the seven to 10-day window is about one in 2 million. And within that one in 2 million chance, it takes a week or two to diagnose HIV, not a lifetime. So, you see, there is no doubt that this ban doesn't stand on good footing any longer.

The FDA's perspective and recommendation

The FDA still considers a level of risk - however miniscule it may seem to the average person - to be too high. 'During the 'window period' a person infected with HIV may not have enough virus or antibodies to be detected by tests. They could test negative even when they're HIV-positive and infectious,' said Curtis Allen, an FDA spokesman, to Men's Health. 'Also, the blood that has already been collected and stored in a blood bank may be given accidentally to a patient in error before testing is completed.'

The AABB, America's Blood Centers (ABC), and the Red Cross support a one-year deferral - the 'window period' never lasts as long as one year. The blood banks argue the tests and safeguards can easily detect HIV and controls are in place in blood banks to prevent the release of inappropriate units. The FDA counters that errors could occur.

According to reports, the stalemate between the FDA and the blood banks dates back to 1997 - three years before one of the worst blood shortages in American history. In 2000, those shortages led to postponements of elective surgeries in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

'At the time, all hospitals combined needed about 80,000 units of blood daily,' reports Men's Health, 'but the Red Cross could deliver only 36,000.'

Students and even administrators on high school and college campuses across the country (where blood banks collect almost 20 percent of their donations) have begun to protest the ban. And the momentum has only continued to build.

According to reports, the Department of Health and Human Services, under which the FDA operates, last considered changing the ban in June 2010. After reviewing the data, the FDA's Blood Safety and Availability Advisory Committee said, once again, that they found the proposed changes 'suboptimal' and voted to keep the current policy in place.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for Blood Safety and Availability Advisory Committee voted in 2010 not to recommend a change to the FDA policy. They met again on the issue in 2012 but once again failed to make any new recommendations.

Gay Blood Drive
Gay Blood Drive is a new national activist group website (www.gayblooddrive.com) calling for a National Gay Blood Drive. The slogan is simple: 'On July 11 donate in place of the Gay & Bisexual men who can't.' Gay Blood Drive officials believe that on July 11, a nationwide blood drive will take place to bring attention to the ban and help save lives.

'Gay and Bisexual men will show their willingness to contribute by bringing allies to donate in their place,' writes the company online. 'This grassroots effort to create change cannot happen without you.'

In other words a good showing is needed.

Public Health - Seattle & King County issues statement
In response to a request from the Seattle Gay News, Public Health - Seattle & King County issued the following statement on Thursday, July 10, regarding the FDA's blood donation policy:

'Public Health - Seattle & King County urges the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review its current policy banning all men who have sex with men from donating blood. Public Health is committed to supporting the safety of our nation's blood supply and endorses the FDA's perspective that the overarching priority in setting blood donation policy should be the health of transfusion recipients. At the same time, we want to be certain that FDA policy reflects an accurate and contemporary understanding of the tests used to screen donated blood for infectious agents, like HIV, and that FDA policy is not unnecessarily restrictive in a way that could be discriminatory.

'There have been tremendous advances in the tests used to screen the blood supply since the FDA adopted its current rules. Recognizing this, a number of countries have no ban in place, while the European Union and Canada allow men to donate blood if they have not had sex with another man for one to five years. The American Medical Association advocates for eliminating regulations that prohibit men who have sex with men from donating blood, and the American Red Cross and the America's Blood Centers have called on the FDA to review its policy. We support these widespread calls for a review of current FDA rules.'

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