Local lawmakers, blood suppliers weigh in on donor safety rules

John Petrick, The Record

Tuesday, June 14, 2016 1:21 AM

When it comes to the advent of AIDS within the gay community and its impact on the safety of America's donated blood supply, North Jersey health officials and legislators alike say that one thing is clear — that was then, and this is now.

"What may have seemed reasonable 30 years ago is not justifiable now, especially with modern blood screening techniques. It's time to update outdated laws and policies," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood.

In the aftermath of the shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that killed 49 people and injured 53, blood centers in that area were overwhelmed with people who wanted to donate. Gay men, however, weren't all allowed to do so — a policy harking back to the height of the AIDS crisis.

Until recently, men who had sex with men at any point in their lives were prohibited from giving blood in the U.S., the rationale being that they were more likely to be HIV positive. Federal authorities have begun to loosen those restrictions, put in place in 1985, after years of opposition by gay rights advocates and improvements in screening technology. In December, the Food and Drug Administration published new voluntary guidelines for blood centers that would permit donations by gay or bisexual men who have abstained from sex for one year.

While observers say it's a step in the right direction, they say the ban ultimately needs to be lifted once and for all.

"Especially in the wake of such a tragedy, it seems senseless to exclude an entire population that is ready to help. I heard someone say today that it's easier to buy a gun than to donate blood, and they're right. We have to update our policies," Huttle said.

Dr. Dennis Todd, CEO of Community Blood Services in Montvale, noted that the 1985 federal law restricted many other populations from donating blood as well. "There is more to the deferral than simply having sex with men," Todd said. "There are restrictions against sex workers, IV drug users, being involved with someone who is having sex with a commercial sex worker. All sorts of things like that. There are about a dozen different categories that they talk about."

Others subject to a one-year delay include people who have been diagnosed with or treated for syphilis or gonorrhea, and those who got tattoos from an unregulated tattoo parlor. Individuals engaged in sex work or injection drug use are subject to a lifetime ban.

Todd said he believes it won't be long before the restriction is lifted: "I think the science has caught up with the situation. We have much better testing today." He noted that, ultimately, potential donors are only as good as their word. "We are relying on people to be truthful with us," he said. "But if they want to be untruthful, there is no way to stop that from happening."

The proof is in the pudding. Ultimately, only tests are what will keep the blood supply safe. "The industry is constantly updating the test, so that we get better and better results," Todd said, adding that previously, an infected person might sometimes take up to a year to test positive. "They are trying to close that window."

Todd said that, at least from his position, there hasn't been much community push-back to the blood donor policies. "I've had very few cases of someone complaining," he said. "It does happen every once in a while. But it hasn't been a major issue."

Scott Schoettes, senior attorney and HIV project director at Lambda Legal, which focuses on civil rights for the LGBT community, said a rigorous approach based on donor behavior rather than identity wouldn't only reduce discrimination, but could improve safety.

"Someone could go out and have sex with eight different people in a span of a month. As long as that was heterosexual sex, that would not ban them from giving blood," Schoettes said. "There's day-to-day discrimination going on against gay and bisexual men on this issue."

The HIV epidemic continues to disproportionately affect gay and bisexual men, especially gay men of color. Men who have sex with men represent just 4 percent of the male population but account for 63 percent of new HIV infections and 54 percent of those currently living with HIV, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

The FDA's one-year guideline is "extremely precautionary, and in that sense appropriate," said Louis M. Katz, chief medical officer of America's Blood Centers, a network of community blood centers including the one in Orlando that put out the call for donations after Sunday's attack.

Katz, an infectious disease specialist who has treated HIV patients, said the deferment period could probably be shortened, but even a six-month or 30-day waiting period may be seen as discriminatory.

"We look at moving from permanent to one-year as a first step," Katz said. "I think the next step's going to be a long time coming."

Data from Australia showed a one-year deferment period, as opposed to a total ban, didn't increase the number of HIV-positive donations. No comparable evidence exists for an approach to blood screening based on individual risk assessment, according to the FDA.

John Tozzi of Bloomberg News Service contributed to this report. Email: petrick@northjersey.com