In their yearly publication on the subject, the World Health Organization (WHO) reiterated the need for groups which are at high risk for HIV infections to be provided access to the proper medical authorities for diagnoses and treatment. The report also reveals that gay men or “Men who have sex with Men” (MSM) are still the demographic with the highest rates of infection and are at the highest risk of developing one as well. This report could hurt the efforts of activists’ in the United States who have been attempting to get the FDA to lift its “indefinite” ban on MSM blood donations.
In 1983, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued rules which barred men who have had sex with other men from donating their blood to blood banks, citing concerns over what we today know as HIV/AIDS but was then a scary mysterious plague that only seemed to affect gay men. Since then the LGBT community has fought to restore gay men’s right to donate blood but up until recently they had done so with little success, due likely to negative public sentiment towards their sexuality and the persistent fear for AIDS itself.
However, today activists claim that such worries are no longer valid, arguing that new tests which can tell if a person is HIV positive within 12 days make such restrictions on blood donations obsolete. Eric Klinger-Wilensky, a gay man who recently organized a gay blood bank to protest the FDA’s rules, explained that while he understood why men like him were banned from donating blood during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he argued that increased scientific knowledge had rendered those policies obsolete.
He told reporters that research has disproven much of what people feared about gay men in the past, such as a delusion that “the risk of contracting HIV” is “latent in a gay person.” However report issued by WHO and the information gathered by the FDA seems to suggest that the issue is not as clear-cut as Mr. Kling-Wilensky makes it out to be. In fact both organizations have compiled data on HIV/AIDS that would most certainly hurt the activists’ attempts at lifting the blood ban.
For its part, the FDA maintains that MSM are still a major health risk when it comes to the blood supply. The cited statistics which show that over 70 percent of new AIDS infections are the result of the male-on-male sexual contact. They seem particularly concerned with the “new tests” Mr. Klinger-WIlensky mentioned, arguing that there still is a 12 day “window period” during which an infected individual would come up as negative. Thus the FDA still holds that the blood of MSM is a threat to public health.
They also claim that the tests which the blood banks perform after collecting samples from individuals which are specifically designed to weed out any HIV containing donations are not sufficiently accurate to handle large volumes of MSM donations. Overall the FDA seems more concerned with safety and does not seem satisfied with any sort of test that is not always accurate of which there are none. It does however, admit that if such a test or approach were developed that would allow MSM to donate blood without threatening the blood supply, they would consider changing their policies.
WHO’s report does seems to agree more with the FDA than the LGBT activist. As part of their annual plan to fight HIV, they have for instance, began urging gay men who do not have the HIV virus to begin taking antiretroviral drugs in order to prevent infection if they are exposed to the virus. The idea being that since they are so likely to become infected, the use of the drug as a preventative therapy is justified. Their report also revealed that MSM are 19 times more likely to have HIV than the general population, in some ways mirroring the findings of the FDA. So while they are not saying that HIV “latent” in gay persons, they obviously do not believe that the threat of AIDS has been solved by science.
Even while declaring that the “tide is turning against HIV,” their data still shows that 2 million people are infected by the virus every year, which means that the epidemic is still far from over. The report also highlights many areas where the current system has failed to keep the deadly virus from infecting more people, blaming discrimination and lack of resources for the high HIV rates found among “key groups,” such as sex workers and transgendered individuals. This has already generated controversy as many have interpreted those sections as being critical of oppressed individuals instead of the systems which are denying them adequate care and therefore allowing the AIDS pandemic to continue unabated. The only blame that WHO casts is on the countries who have so far failed to provide at-risk groups with proper access to healthcare so that they can get tested, diagnosed, and (if need be) treated by a trained medical professional.
WHO’s report is unlikely to cause the FDA to entrench itself against the changing its policy regarding the blood donations of MSM, though it could likely hurt the momentum of the activists who are campaigning against the policy. If activists like Mr. Klinger-Wilensky continue to act as if the much-lauded test does not have a very dangerous 12 day “window” and that the science is 100 percent accurate and will protect the general blood supply from donations given by individuals who may not know they are infected with HIV, he and others like him will definitely hurt the LGBT community’s attempts’ at lifting the blood donation ban as well as his own desire to do so. As the FDA makes perfectly clear, it is not a matter of prejudice but a matter of science and safety. Until the activists are able to respond to that argument then they will continue to do nothing but drive their gay blood donation buses around the country without accomplishing an ounce of institutional change.
By Andrew Waddell