With a series of blood drives coming up next week, we need to talk about our donation policy.
The summer before my first year, Columbia University hosted a blood drive. After I proudly completed my donation, I sat with fellow donors to recuperate, and a woman brought up a question during conversation: “So why can’t gay people donate blood?” As I began to give her a clinical explanation of HIV rates in the 1970’s, the donation coordinator pulled her away from the recuperation table for a private explanation.
Naturally, I didn’t hear the full contents of the conversation. I did, however, overhear a few snippets, including one slip of the word “promiscuous.”
Hearing such speech on a progressive campus like Columbia’s was outright alarming. To this day, I still cringe when I receive emails from the University asking me to donate. Which of my unfortunate classmates could be “taught” about evil promiscuity of gay people today? Although there exists some biological basis for fear of queer blood donation, scientific basis for the ban is shaky at best. Furthermore, the University and its student body should be out supporting their LGBT brethren, not partnering with homophobic organizations: Doing so runs completely counter to the University’s anti-discriminatory image.
The FDA estimates HIV prevalence in men who have sex with men (MSM) to be 60 times higher than that of the general population. That’s a pressing concern. Science, however, does not back the “promiscuity” hypothesis. According to Steven Goodreau and Matthew Golden of the University of Washington, the increased MSM HIV rate has no correlation to rates of unprotected sex. In fact, in order for straight individuals to have the HIV rate in the MSM population, they would have to have five different unprotected partners per year.
Five unprotected partners. Per year. Most people, I think, would consider that a high rate, statistically speaking.
Gay men, Goodreau and Golden note, would have to have staggeringly lower rates of unprotected sex than straight people in order to balance out HIV levels. Most scientists, as a result, believe HIV rates to be a by-product of the method of MSM sex—non-vaginal sex having a greater transmission risk—rather than the frequency. So, “promiscuity”? That’s not science. That’s not factual. That’s institutionalized prejudice with very real effects from an organization affiliated with our very own university.
Even with “promiscuity” out of the equation, however, the degree of stringency in modern HIV testing should be more than effective enough to counterbalance the HIV rate. “Fourth generation tests,” HIV blood tests recommended for routine use in the United Kingdom, test for a viral antigen in addition to the antibodies used in other HIV blood tests. With the incorporation of this p24 antigen detection, results have become incredibly accurate. Of a 508 sample study of 10 such tests by the UK’s Health Protection Agency, only one sample failed to have 100 percent sensitivity in detecting HIV positive blood. (The failed sample gave a sensitivity of 99.8 percent.) Similarly, a World Health Organization study of five tests gave 100 percent sensitivity, and a French evaluation of 12 found that nine gave 100 percent sensitivity. (The failed tests, again, gave 99.8 percent sensitivity.) Window periods were found to range from 11 days to one month.
Most blood-processing centers in the United States use a “third generation test” that screens for antibodies alone. Without the p24 screening, generation three tests lack an extra dimension of safety. This lack of generation four tests is problematic: People are willing to systematically exclude MSM people from donation but are too apathetic to improve potentially risky tests. Perhaps using a p24 test might be more expensive, but I think that safety takes primacy over money, gay blood or not.
The American Medical Association opposes the gay blood ban, as does the American Osteopathic Association. If the “need [for blood] is constant,” as the Columbia Office of Government and Community Affairs claims, the University needs to change its policies. After all, the gay population has a healthy amount of blood to give. The evidence is substantial. It’s time to support blood ban reversal and immediately cease false accusations of licentiousness-based HIV rates.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore.
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