American Red Cross Dogged by Allegations of Discrimination

The American Red Cross faces continued allegations of discrimination against gay men and Africans for its guidelines that prevent certain people from donating blood through the organization’s blood drives, such as the one being hosted on the Harvard Business School campus.
The Red Cross blood donation eligibility guidelines are designed to protect the safety of the nation’s blood supply, and they are issued in concert with guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The guidelines require that people with certain blood disease risks refrain from donating blood, usually for a period of twelve months to three years.

A person who has had a tattoo must wait twelve months before donating blood, as do people who have been treated for syphilis or gonorrhea or have used intranasal cocaine. Those who have delivered a baby must wait six weeks. Because of BSE, (so-called “mad cow disease”), new requirements disqualify potential donors who have spent more than three months in the United Kingdom or six months in Europe or Oman since 1980.

The guidelines leading to discrimination allegations, however, relate to HIV risk. Current guidelines prevent anyone born in or who has lived in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Equator Guinea, Gabon, Niger, or Nigeria since 1977. Of these countries, currently eleven HBS students list their home region as Nigeria. The Red Cross does not state why these particular countries are singled out in the policy.
Says Feyi Folowosele (NF), from Nigeria, “When I found out about the restriction, I was quite incredulous because I don’t fully understand the basis of selection for the countries listed. I believe there are many other countries with a higher incidence of AIDS than those listed. I think it’s quite discriminatory given that anybody could be at risk for HIV and all donated blood should be tested anyway. It’s a shame that it restricts many able bodied and healthy people from giving blood.”

However, Ade Lawal (OK), also of Nigeria, says, “Giving blood is really a voluntary exercise and if the Red Cross or FDA decides that they would prefer not to have blood from a subset of people, that is up to them.”
In addition to people from certain countries in Africa, the guidelines prevent many gay men from donating blood. While the guidelines state that a heterosexual who has had sex with a prostitute must wait a year before donating blood, the Red Cross also prevents any “male who has had sex with another male since 1977, even once” from donating blood.
These guidelines have been in effect since 1985, when HIV/AIDS was in its early stages of being researched and tested and when “men who have sex with men” (MSM, a sociological term that includes non-gay-identifying men who have sex with other men) dominated diagnosed cases.

Some see inconsistencies in the logic underlying the guidelines. “This policy misses the point that HIV gets spread by sexual behavior, not sexual orientation. Personally, I’d much rather receive blood from a healthy homosexual than a heterosexual who doesn’t practice safe sex,” says Alex Mandl (OF). Recent statistics show that heterosexuals, specifically heterosexual women, are the fastest growing HIV-infected population in the U.S.

In an interview with The Harbus, Lucia Orellana, Senior Analyst with Partnership for Community Health, a not-for-profit organization that consults to government agencies and other not-for-profits that provide HIV/AIDS-related social services, said, “The 2000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report shows that heterosexuals represent 17% of the reported HIV cases through 2000, compared to 29% among MSM.”

Orellana continued, “While in 1985 women represented only 7% of all AIDS cases, currently women account for nearly 25% of AIDS cases. Can you imagine a policy stating that if you are a woman who has had sex since 1985 you are ineligible to donate blood? Even with the qualifier of ‘unprotected sex,’ I’m sure that wouldn’t fly?”

The FDA consulted its panel of scientific advisers in September of 2000 about revising the policy regarding MSM disqualification to allow MSM to donate if they have been abstinent for five years, and the panel voted 7-6 against revising the standards. Using a series of statistical assumptions, a panel doctor estimated that potentially 1 or 2 infected units of blood per year could reach the blood supply if the policy were relaxed. The U.S. collects approximately 12 million units of blood per year.

According to an Associated Press report by Lauran Neergaard issued shortly after the decision, about half of the nation’s blood banks disagree with the guidelines and support changing the policy to allow MSM to donate blood if they have refrained from sex with other men for only a single year. The same article reports that blood banks began using nucleic acid testing in 1999 to detect HIV in donated blood and can detect the virus’s presence within 11 days of infection, even before the donor’s body has recognized it.

In an interview with The Harbus, a spokesperson from the American Red Cross National Headquarters reiterated the organization’s support for the current guidelines and implied that statisticians would have to show that not a single unit of donated blood would reach the blood supply because of a policy change. When asked to comment on the rising rates of HIV infection among heterosexuals in the U.S., the spokesperson declined to comment, but reiterated the organization’s concern for the nation’s blood supply.

The apparent discrepancies in policy logic leave many people feeling discriminated against. Says Billy Lagor (NF), “The Red Cross characterizes an entire section of the population by assumptions of promiscuity. Their guidelines would allow a man who had sex with prosititutes every night for a year to wait twelve months before giving blood, while a man who tests HIV-negative and who has been in a monogomous long-term relationship with another man can’t even consider giving blood that could save a life. This not only prevents a healthy source of donors from giving blood, it reinforces false stereotypes about gay men.”

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