Group challenges FDA ban on blood donated from gay men

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In 1983 the FDA imposed a lifelong ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood. But a national activist group wants to change that.

In 1983 the FDA imposed a lifelong ban on gay and bisexual men from donating blood But a national activist group wants to change that. The group held an event Friday hoping to bring awareness to the issue.

In the United States, experts say Americans use 41,000 units of blood per day.

Andy Keeter is giving blood in support of his brother-in-law, Michael, who can't. Michael can't because he's gay. Since 1983, the FDA has had a policy banning men who have sex with men (also called MSM) from donating blood.

Organizers of the National Gay Blood Drive say the policy is outdated and want to bring about a change. They're asking gay men to bring in straight friends to donate in their place.

"We've made huge strides in medical science that it's not necessary anymore," said Sherman Oaks resident Michael Washburn.

"Ultimately we all want to help save lives," said Ryan Yezak, a National Gay Blood Donor Drive organizer.

The FDA's policy was passed in response to the AIDS crisis. Since then the technology for testing blood samples has vastly improved.

Activists believe the ban on gay men is discriminatory. But the FDA denies that. The agency states its "deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion-transmissible infections such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor's sexual orientation."

The Centers for Disease Control says in 2010, MSM accounted for at least 63 percent of all new HIV infections in the U.S.

Activists point out that risky behavior does not only apply to gay men.

"If it really is a high-risk issue, they would be deferring everyone who posed a risk to the blood supply, and they're not," said Yezak.

The American Red Cross and other national blood donor centers agree the lifetime ban on gay men should be changed. They strongly support a one-year deferral, meaning if a man has had sex with another man within the past year, they shouldn't be allowed to give blood.

But this issue is complicated, and even within the gay community, there is division.

"I would never want to receive or be infected by it. I'm negative and I want to keep it that way," said West Hollywood resident Lucky Romero.

"How many people disclose their status, really? I mean, my experience, nobody's ever disclosed their status to me," said L.A. resident Jeff Blair.

Organizers here are hoping to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition to the White House. They want the Obama Administration to weigh in.

"Anyone who is healthy, regardless of who you are, if you can give blood, you should give blood. It's the most important thing you should do," said Andy Keeter.

Last year, the American Medical Association voted to end the ban in light of new screening techniques able to detect HIV in donated blood.

The FDA said in a statement that it would consider a change to the policy if there were data available to show that lifting the ban provided no additional risk to people receiving donated blood.

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