July 20, 2018 | ° F

Blood drive calls for FDA policy revision

Photo by Ramon Dompor |

Troy Kaiser, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, donates blood at the Every Drop Counts blood drive yesterday in the Busch Campus Center while his friend Samantha Betruzzi, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, accompanies him.

Although some University students came to donate blood yesterday at the second Every Drop Counts blood drive, many others just gave their signature.

Run by the Rutgers University Student Assembly in the Multipurpose Room of the Busch Campus Center, the event was held in protest of a Food and Drug Administration regulation banning men who have sex with men from donating.

RUSA President Yousef Saleh said it is also a good way to shed light on what he deemed an "antiquated" FDA rule. He encouraged students to donate blood on behalf of someone affected by this policy.

"Every time they get blood, they check it for banned substances or diseases and ask you many questions," said Saleh, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. "It is just as likely to pass HIV to someone else from a straight person."

RUSA University Affairs Chair Kristen Clarke coordinated the blood drive and said students either donated blood or signed a petition to change the rule, which also asks students to notify their congressional representative.

"It is a calling to the legislature to either sponsor or support legislation to reverse this ban or petition the FDA to get rid of the ban," said Clarke, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

The FDA does not allow men who have sex with other men (MSM) to donate blood because of the high risk of the donor having HIV or AIDS, according to its website.

Since the regulation was put into effect during the 1980s, Clarke said the rule is outdated because we no longer live in a world uncertain about HIV or AIDS.

"We have made so many advances and we know it is not just gay men that can contract HIV/AIDS. It is anyone who partakes in high risk behavior," she said. "So having the ban just on gay men is discriminating against their sexual orientation."

Clarke added many gay men do not have HIV or AIDS, which does not help increase the number of donations during a time when the nation deals with a shortage of donated blood.

"So why would we want to prevent more people from donating?" she said. "All they have to do is donate and if, god forbid, they are HIV-positive, they just do not use that blood."

RUSA sent a letter to Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., last year about the ban on MSM, Clarke said. He was caught by surprise and felt the rule needed to be updated.

"[But] to date, there has really been nothing done," she said. "So that is why we are doing a second round of it and we are hoping to get other student organizations on board."

Along with several other N.J. senators, Lautenberg sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg last March in an effort to have the rule revised or revoked.

"With hospitals and emergency rooms across the country in constant and urgent need of blood products, we believe certain blood donor deferral policies should be reviewed and appropriately modified," according to the letter.

Heterosexual donors who had sexual relations with a person known to have HIV are only banned for one year while gay men are banned for life, according to the letter. This is one of the issues that motivated Lautenberg and his fellow senators to protest the rule.

"The safety, availability and integrity of our nation's blood supply are vital," according to the letter. "For these reasons, we agree with the American Red Cross, America's Blood Centers … and others that the time has come for the FDA to modify the lifetime deferral for MSM."

To address the controversy surrounding the regulation, the FDA dedicates a section of more than 2,000 words to their website dealing with the ban on MSM. The section attempts to clarify why the rule exists while addressing social concerns like discrimination.

"FDA's deferral policy is based on the documented increased risk of certain transfusion transmissible infections, such as HIV, associated with male-to-male sex and is not based on any judgment concerning the donor's sexual orientation," according to its website.

The section also addresses Lautenberg's issue of how heterosexual men suspected to be HIV-positive are not permanently deferred. According to the website, MSM are more likely to contract the disease despite rising numbers among heterosexuals.

"While statistics indicate a rising infection rate among young heterosexual women, their overall rate of HIV infection remains much lower than in men who have sex with other men," according to the website.

The FDA recognizes how many donors are deferred by the regulation and continues to monitor and consult with health experts to see if the rule needs revision.

"FDA's primary responsibility is to enhance blood safety and protect blood recipients. FDA would change this policy only if supported by scientific data showing that a change in policy would not present a significant and preventable risk to blood recipients," according to the website.

U.S. Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability (ACBSA) reviewed the ban on MSM in June in an effort to determine whether the rule needs to be changed.

Despite the improvements of disease detection in donated blood samples, the ACBSA voted nine to six against revising the MSM regulation, according to a resolution provided by HHS Senior Advisor for Blood Policy Jerry Holmberg.

"Whereas we believe that the current donor deferral policies are suboptimal in permitting some potentially high-risk donations while preventing some potentially low-risk donations, we find currently available scientific data are inadequate to support change to a specific alternative policy," according to the resolution.

Although the committee felt the rule should not be changed at this time, ACBSA members voted unanimously to dedicate more research to the area in hopes of revising the rule in the future, according to the resolution.

"A U.S. Public Health Service working group was convened to review the current MSM deferral and to propose strategic steps, including scientifically valid research for developing and validation of an HHS alternative policy that would guide a possible change in deferral," according to the website.

Devin Sikorski

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