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Hurricane Puts A Blood Ban Back In The Spotlight

Hurricane Sandy means an urgent need for blood donations. But gay men still can't donate.

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The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy brought cancellation of blood drives across the Northeast, and the Red Cross and other groups have put out an urgent call for donors to make up the shortfall. But one group is still barred from donating: men who've had sex with a man since 1977.

FDA guidelines currently ban these men from giving blood because they're more likely to be HIV-positive than the population at large. But better testing and a better understanding of the virus have led to calls to change the policy, and they may get louder post-Sandy.

"I think it raises people's awareness," says Lee Storrow, an advocate for policy change and town councilmember in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, of the effect of the storm. "The fact that this policy exists isn't well-known by the general public. When I offhandedly make comments to friends about my inability to donate, it's often a surprise."

He adds, "I think this policy was justifiable scientifically in the 1980s," but "this is 2012 now, and when we look at the science that exists now and our ability to test for STDs, there's no reason to have the policy, especially in a time of great need."

Blood transfusion expert Dr. Harvey Klein says that while more research is needed, all the studies that have been done show that allowing men who have had sex with men to donate would mean a small increase in the risk of blood recipients contracting HIV or hepatitis. However, other populations also present a slightly increased risk of disease transmission — he notes that people who have been in areas where malaria is common are barred from donating for three years, although their blood does pose a slightly elevated danger of malaria transmission even after that. And some other nations have loosened their restrictions — Australia allows men to donate if they have abstained from sex with men for a year.

Klein also says that under ordinary circumstances, there isn't a nationwide shortage of blood donors, and allowing men who have had sex with men to donate likely wouldn't cause a huge jump in the blood supply. "It's really an issue of fairness," he says. "Everybody who is a potential recipient wants a zero-risk blood supply, but that's not going to happen even in the ideal-est circumstances. So the question is, what's the risk that our society will tolerate?"

The Department of Health and Human Services appears to be evaluating this question. In 2010, an advisory panel called the current policy "suboptimal" but didn't recommend a change yet. This March, the HHS put out a request for research proposals to study whether more specific criteria — rather than a blanket ban on all men who have had sex with men since 1977 — could reduce the risk while allowing more men to donate. It's currently reviewing the responses. So while gay and bisexual men are banned from donating post-Sandy, they may be able to participate in blood drives to come.