Sunday, May 27, 2018
Health

Banned blood donor just wanted to help a friend

Blake Lynch is a nursing student. So it is hardly surprising that when he learned a friend and fellow student with sickle cell anemia needed blood transfusions, he wanted to help her.

Lynch is gay, and said so on the application he filled out March 1 in Orlando, where he and his friend Emmy Derisbrun are students at the University of Central Florida and Seminole State College.

That's when he discovered that his sexual history, says the Food and Drug Administration, bars him for life from donating blood.

Now the student is an activist.

With his partner Brett Donnelly, Lynch promptly founded the aptly named Banned4Life to let people know about this situation. They'll be at today's St. Pete Pride event, spreading the word and seeking more signatures to send to the FDA seeking a reconsideration of the policy. They already have 15,000.

It was humiliating to be turned away from donating blood for Derisbrun, Lynch says. But his priority is the bigger issue — saving lives of people who need blood.

Fewer than four in 10 Americans are eligible to donate blood. The rest are eliminated temporarily or permanently for weighing too little, traveling to certain parts of the world, carrying certain diseases — or having sex with people at risk of certain diseases.

Interestingly, a woman who has had sex with a gay man is herself restricted from donating blood only for a year — the same delay many experts say would work for gay men.

Of everyone who is permitted to donate, less than 10 percent do so. Little wonder that blood banks frequently issue urgent calls for donations.

So the last thing a future nurse like Lynch wants is to discourage donors. "I thought that if we protest, we could make it even harder to get blood,'' he told me.

"What we say (to gay men) is, 'Since you can't donate, encourage other people to go out and donate for you,' '' he explained.

Lynch may be among the younger advocates for this cause, but he's far from alone. AIDS experts for years have said the FDA policy is obsolete, stemming from the early 1980s when there was no good test to ensure blood was free of the virus.

Years ago, as testing technology became faster and more reliable, the Red Cross, America's Blood Centers and others urged the FDA to rethink the ban. Earlier this month, the American Medical Association added its voice:

"The lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have sex with men is discriminatory and not based on sound science," said AMA board member Dr. William Kobler. The group "urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone."

I called the FDA and here's the emailed statement I received:

"FDA and (the Department of Health and Human Services) are committed to continuously improving the safety and availability of the nation's blood supply. FDA and HHS continue to reevaluate the scientific basis for its blood donor deferral policies.''

More than a year ago, HHS sought comments on criteria that would allow donations by gay men, but "no decision has been made yet to proceed with the pilot.''

Lynch knows his cause is a tough one, but he sounds undaunted.

"Not everyone is going to be happy about it, because of stereotypes and preconceived notions. But we have a positive message — we want to increase the blood donor population.

"It's not about us, it's about people who need blood.''

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