"I was devastated when the nurse turned me away," the musical theater major recalls.,On Jan. 10, 2006, Steven Cuevas went to a blood drive hoping to perform a common and honorable civic duty. However, the Emerson senior was soon met with an unpleasant surprise: Because of his sexual orientation, he was ineligible to donate.
"I was devastated when the nurse turned me away," the musical theater major recalls. "It was the first time I was ever rejected because of my homosexuality."
Cuevas is hardly alone in his predicament. Recently, Food and Drug Administration medical officer Andrew Dayton estimated that 62,300 gay men are annually denied the chance to donate.
The anti-homosexual ban was first instituted in 1985. Back then, we lived in a world where AIDS was widely misunderstood, and believed to be a disease that plagued gay men and hemophiliacs who had been given blood transfusions from HIV-positive persons. Thus the FDA took precautions and instituted restriction on "male[s] who [have] had sexual contact with another male, even once, since 1977."
Cuevas argues times have changed. "The fact that a male has come into sexual contact with another male does not mean that unsafe sex or the transmitting of diseases has occurred," he said.
He is exactly right. While it's true homosexuals comprise a majority of all HIV/AIDS cases in the United States, a sizable plurality of victims are heterosexual, according to the CDC. If you suggested that in 1985, when the FDA regulation was passed, people would have thought you were crazy.
To be fair, the FDA has acknowledged that it's not just gay men who are barred from donating. Hemophiliacs cannot give blood, since their bodies cannot control bleeding due to an inability to clot. Also banned are current or former intravenous drug users and anyone who's visited or lived in certain North African countries where the epidemic has become widespread. However, of all the AIDS/HIV-related rules, the one excluding gay men is the most ridiculous. Nearly 23 years after its installation, it's horribly outdated.
Advances in modern blood screening should leave no reason to fear accidental contamination. Horror stories of patients being transfused with HIV-positive blood have been rare since the FDA instituted its nucleic acid test in 2001.
The FDA describes the nucleic acid test as "recently developed technology that allows detection of very small amounts of genetic material (DNA or RNA) by a process of massive copying (amplification) of a gene fragment." In layman's terms, this means that the microscope in the detection process can now zoom in on possible contamination further than ever before. Since the introduction of the NAT, the FDA has reported that the odds of an HIV risk in donated blood are only one in two million.
The low probability rate is something to be proud of, but it isn't a credit to any restrictions placed on who can donate. The American Red Cross, the United States' largest blood supplier, stated that even with the ban, thousands of HIV-positive donations are annually donated only to be caught through NAT testing and discarded.
The FDA and American Red Cross have set up solid procedures to ensure that contaminated blood does not slip through the cracks. Regardless though, the FDA continues to annually turn away tens of thousands of blood donors based merely on archaic beliefs. If a donor is HIV positive, his blood will be judged unusable by the NAT, a test that doesn't discriminate on anything besides "positive" and "negative."
After all, the most persistent statement that any blood donation clinic makes is that it's always in a state of "Urgent Need." And while the male homosexual community continues to bear the burden of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it's a fact that the epidemic is actually an issue that people of all sexualities, all races and both sexes have to deal with.
It's time to dismiss past misconceptions and stop denying tens of thousands from performing the civic duty of rolling up their sleeves to help those who need it the most.