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FDA Must Lift Ban on Gay Men Donating Blood, Say So. Florida Activists

by Megan Barnes
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Sunday Feb 3, 2013
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Activists in South Florida have launched a campaign to urge the Food and Drug Administration to rethink its nearly 30-year ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.

On Jan. 16, the Miami Beach City Commission unanimously passed a resolution urging the FDA to lift the ban, which bars any man who has had sex with a man since 1977 from donating blood.

Latino LGBT group Unity Coalition brought the resolution to the commission. The group has also started a White House petition and poster campaign to bring attention to a policy many gays feel is discriminatory.

"Even people in the know don’t seem to realize that this ban exists, so more than anything, this is about education," said Executive Director Herb Sosa. "Excluding a whole group of willing and able individuals discriminates and is scientifically baseless, and that’s what we’re hoping to change."

The ban was implemented in 1985 during the AIDS epidemic, when a number of new infections were traced to blood transfusions. But all blood donations are now tested for HIV and other infectious diseases, and the tests have gotten better. Several countries, most recently Mexico and the United Kingdom, have lifted their bans.

Sosa and other activists hope the U.S. will follow suit.

"Our campaign is not to say the FDA doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’re just slow in considering this, and social stigma is involved," he said. "I think the FDA is being extremely cautious."

The FDA maintains that the rare chance of infection -- one in 1.5 million -- means it is too risky to allow donations from men who have sex with men for the more than 20 million transfusions that occur each year in the U.S. The last known case of HIV infection via blood transfusion occurred in 2008 and, before that, in 2002. In both cases, the donors gave blood during the brief window period in which HIV is undetectable in the blood.

But critics argue that the number of lives that could be saved by lifting the ban outweighs the rare risk of infection, and that while the face of HIV has changed, the policy hasn’t because it was conceived in a time of stigma and misinformation.

"In the U.S., from the inception of HIV and AIDS, it was perceived as a gay men’s disease, but the face of HIV and AIDS today is across the board," Sosa said. "It does not discriminate and it does not pick and choose. It’s a horrible disease, but it’s not limited to gay men."


His group is gathering signatures for a White House petition calling for a repeal of the policy, but so far it has less than 100 of the 100,000 signatures needed by Feb. 14 for an official response.

"I took the initiative to do the online petition, and it happened to be on the same day that the rules changed on signature requirements, so this is more to get the message out there," said Walker Burttschell, board member of the Miami Beach Human Rights Committee.

Burttschell made headlines in 2010 when he shook President Barack Obama’s hand after he signed the repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, under which Burttschell was discharged from the Marines in 2003.

"Half of our board didn’t even know this blood donation ban existed," he said. "A lifelong ban is just blatant discrimination."

He hopes to get more governmental bodies in Florida to pass similar resolutions.

"We want to get half a dozen or so different municipalities to pass similar resolutions, to add pressure and get our congressional delegation to write a joint letter to the White House," Burttschell told EDGE.

Unity Coalition is also putting up posters in bars and nightclubs throughout South Florida to bring attention to the issue.

Sosa said his group isn’t looking to recommend a specific policy to the FDA, but rather, to draw enough attention to start a real conversation about revisiting the issue.

"We’re trying to say, ’Look at all of these other first world countries and the research and conclusions they reached based on science, not based on fear, and let’s do the same in the U.S.,’ " he said. "The testing and the checks and balances are already in place. Limiting this whole chunk of people based on a social stigma is hurting all Americans."


To sign the petition, visit unitycoalition.org/

Megan Barnes is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. She regularly contributes to EDGE, San Pedro Today and was a founding editor of alternative UCSB newspaper The Bottom Line. More of her work can be found at www.megbarnes.com

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