Validity of restrictions on blood donation up for debate

Each year, Student Blood Services hosts several blood drives at Northwestern. But some groups of people are excluded from this opportunity, including people who take intravenous drugs, people who have recently been to Africa and men who have sex with men.

“This policy has been in place for a long time,” said Lenore Gelb of the Food and Drug Administration’s public relations department. “We first recommended these measures in 1983, as soon as the epidemiological information was available that said certain groups were at risk.”

The current FDA policy states that a man who has had sex with another man since 1977 may not donate blood, under any condition.

This rule prevents some students from participating in the on-campus blood drives.

“Every year you hear that blood banks are low on this or that type of blood, and there are a lot of people who are not permitted to donate blood for no good reason,” said Matthew Barbour, president of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance. “I think it’s an opportunity to do something good for other people.”

Barbour, a Weinberg junior, said the policy assumes that AIDS is specific to gay men, which is not true.

Laura Sell, president of Student Blood Services, said the group is opposed to the policy.

“Every SBS executive board member with whom I have spoken on this topic is personally 100 percent opposed to the rule,” said Sell, a Weinberg junior. “We all feel it is grossly outdated. Homosexual males no longer make up the No. 1 group to contract the HIV virus, and they haven’t for some time.”

New information prompted the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Board to hold a meeting in September to discuss changing the rule. Instead of the ban from 1977 on, the board debated changing the time limit to five years.

Six voted in favor of the change and seven opposed. Those who were opposed believed that more information was needed to make this decision, Gelb said.

Though all donated blood undergoes two tests for the virus, the risks of undetectable strains, blood bank errors, primary test failure and the window period for newly infected donors all add to the question of safety, Gelb said.

“There is an expectation that the blood supply should be as safe as we can possibly make it,” she said.

Barbour said he cannot believe the FDA would make a policy against gay sex in the first place.

“These policies were made at a time when little was known about the disease, how it was transmitted and who transmitted it,” Barbour said. “Now that we know more about the disease, and the populations that are being hit by it are shifting, there is no reason for these policies anymore.”

In the meantime, Sell said, SBS is forced to abide by the regulation.

“Yes, we are looking into ways to change the rule,” she said. “However, it’s going to take time and a lot of work.”