SEATTLE — Bill Herman, 27, knew when he left work Friday to donate blood at a Seattle blood center that he would be turned away.
Herman is a gay man, which — according to current Food and Drug Administration regulations — disqualifies him from donating. The FDA bans blood and bone-marrow donations from any man who has had sex with another man at any time since 1977.
But when Herman asked his boss at Microsoft if he could leave early, she didn’t know he’d be rejected and neither did several colleagues. That lack of awareness is why Herman said he and others around the nation attempted to donate blood Friday as part of the first National Gay Blood Drive. “It’s astonishing how few people know that’s still a rule,” said Herman.
The national drive was organized by Ryan James Yezak, a 26-year-old gay man from Houston filming a documentary about discrimination based on sexual orientation.
At Puget Sound Blood Center, where Herman tried to donate, all donations are screened for a number of disqualifying conditions, including HIV, no matter what donors put on their medical forms, said its president, Dr. James AuBuchon.
But because there is a window period when donors could be infected with HIV without it being detectable in their blood, the FDA remains leery of allowing donations from a population highly associated with the virus.
According to the FDA, men who have had sex with men made up 61 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010. The FDA also says that although the overall rate of HIV was stable from 2008 to 2010, the rate of infection went up 12 percent among men who have sex with men, while the rate in other populations decreased.
That stretch of time before HIV shows up in the blood varies depending on the test. AuBuchon says it’s less than two weeks with the nucleic acid blood tests used at his centers.
AuBuchon says he supports changing FDA regulations so that men who have had sex with men can donate if they haven’t had sex with a male in the last year. He says he used to support the FDA’s ban when tests for HIV were less reliable, but he doesn’t now.
“The rationale for it has diminished because of improved testing,” said AuBuchon.
An FDA statement says the agency is studying its regulations, and its findings will be discussed in future public forums.
In the meantime, Herman says, the FDA’s current policy is discriminatory, and it keeps him from helping others including his own friends. Herman found out about the policy two years ago when he wanted to see if his bone marrow was a match for a friend suffering from a blood disease. The friend eventually got better after receiving marrow from his sister.
But Herman remembers how torn he was about what to do when he wanted to help.
“I thought, do I lie on this form or do I not?” Herman said. “It was weird to be in that position where I have to choose between being honest with who I am or helping a friend.”
©2013 The Seattle Times