BY Steven Thrasher
October 09 2009 9:00 AM ET
Long before his name became synonymous with AIDS, Ryan White, a hemophiliac from the central Indiana city of Kokomo, spent precious hours of his young life regularly receiving blood transfusions -- one of which would forever alter the course of his life.
Around the same time -- but not soon enough for White or the 10,000 affected hemophiliacs -- doctors in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco struggled to understand a baffling wave of opportunistic infections chiefly affecting gay men, many of whom were in otherwise good health. The illness had yet to be named, nor was it yet known that it could be passed through the nation’s blood supply.
In 1983, a year before White was diagnosed with AIDS and subsequently pushed into the national spotlight, the Food and Drug Administration, a subagency of the Department of Health and Human Services that regulates the nation’s collection of blood and blood products, barred from donating blood any man who’d had sexual contact with another man (or “MSM,” in FDA parlance) since 1977. In the panicked, early days of the pandemic, the ban was born out of utter necessity. Twenty-six years later the medical and scientific landscape has changed, but the policy remains.
Today, three years after the American Red Cross, the American Association of Blood Banks, and America’s Blood Centers blasted the policy as “scientifically and medically unwarranted,” congressional representatives have ramped up pressure on the FDA to reconsider the ban. They’re not alone. Several colleges and universities throughout the nation have scrapped on-campus blood drives, claiming that the policy runs counter to collegiate antidiscrimination rules. Abroad, Italy and Spain have adopted blood donation policies based on the risks of sexual practices, regardless of sexual orientation, while several other countries now allow gay men to donate if they have abstained from sexual contact for one year.