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San Jose State Bans Red Cross Over FDA Rule

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/blooddonate3.jpgPhoto Credit: iStockphoto

Last week, San Jose State University became the first college in the nation to kick the Red Cross off its campus. The university stopped all blood drives until the Food and Drug Administration revises rules that prohibit gay men from donating blood unless they’ve been abstinent since 1977. The school’s president, Don Kassing, said that the FDA policy, in singling out gay men, violated campus anti-discrimination policies.

The 1,000 or so pints of blood collected at San Jose State each year represent only about 1 percent of the blood collected in San Francisco and the peninsula below it. But the blood banks worry that this decision could set a dangerous precedent for other universities where blood drives have been targeted by gay activists. “We feel that this was a terribly misguided decision,” said Lisa Bloch, spokeswoman for the Blood Center of the Pacific.

That said, the blood bankers are equally unhappy with the FDA for refusing to budge on a blood donation policy that many see as overly cautious, and some as politically motivated. While the administration maintains that science supports screening out gay men’s blood, some feel that the administration may be kowtowing to religious conservatives who find the idea distasteful. “Until January 2009, this isn’t going to change,” a major blood banking officer told me. “There is a segment of the public that is scared. They don’t understand what the risks are, and how they can be managed.”

Drives at these schools get people into the habit of donating blood, sometimes for a lifetime

The FDA says it is willing to change the policy “if we were convinced by scientific data that such a change would not compromise blood safety,” said spokeswoman Karen Riley. She urged other institutions not to follow San Jose State’s lead. Universities and high schools are important sources of blood donors. Drives at these schools “get people into the habit of donating blood, sometimes for a lifetime,” Bloch added.

San Jose State made its decision after about nine months of consultations that followed an employee’s complaint to the campus Equal Economic Opportunity Commission office. “We could have sat back and said ‘the FDA is using outdated science but we can’t do anything about it’” said Larry Carr, the campus spokesman. “But instead, we decided to take action.”

Doctors who do transfusions excoriated the university’s decision. The San Francisco Bay, like most major metropolitan areas, is chronically short of blood. During a severe shortage last January, the University of California-San Francisco hospital had to postpone non-elective surgeries. “Their [San Jose State] cause is a just one, but the action is inappropriate,” said Dr. Celso Bianco, executive vice president of America’s Blood Centers, an umbrella group for companies that collect and distribute about half the nation’s blood supplies.

Others went further. “For a university president, of all people, to allege discrimination over a scientific disagreement and regulatory imperative is very disappointing,” said Dr. Louis M. Katz, executive vice president of the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center in Davenport, Iowa, and a member of the FDA’s Blood Products Advisory Committee. Katz, who was previously in HIV medicine, said, “I must have transfused hundreds of AIDS patients. The irony is that a compromised blood supply caused by these kinds of boycotts has the potential to injure those whom the president of San Jose State University is trying to protect.”

Students have also weighed in. “Keeping blood away from dying people,” wrote Kyle Hansen, in the San Jose State campus newspaper, “is not a humane way to protest federal policy.”

San Jose State’s Carr said the university is “not trying to start a movement. We would be upset if a lot of other universities followed our lead.” If the Red Cross pulled a van up across the street from campus and started drawing blood, he added, they’d be welcome to do it.

On a few other campuses, student activists have forced the suspension of blood drives in the past. At McGill, in Montreal, the student government suspended blood drives in November 2006 after a raucous demonstration led by a group called Second Cumming. (Canada also uses the FDA regulations). Campuses in Oregon, Maine and Vermont have come close to banning the Red Cross over the alleged discrimination.

Katz and Bianco, like most blood bank executives, support a relaxing of the deferral on blood donation by gays to make it more similar to other FDA guidelines for donation. For example, women are forbidden from donating blood for a year after having sex with junkies, men from sub-Saharan Africa, or men who have had sex with other men. People are also told to wait for a year after getting tattoos, which have been linked to transmission of hepatitis B and C.

Of course, the broadness of all these rules begs the question of who is really at risk. For example, recent studies have shown that black women are nearly 20 times more likely than white women to be carriers of HIV. Yet no one would demand that black women stop donating blood.

“There are plenty of heterosexuals who put themselves at just as much risk as gay-identified men,” said Dr. Jason Schneider, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine and president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. “I’m hesitant to support shutting down blood drives, because donated blood is a precious commodity for the public health system. That said, I agree with the principle that’s driving this [San Jose State] decision. The right to donate should be based on individual risk, not the group to which you belong. To say that anyone who’s had sex since 1977 is risky is to equate a person who has had a longterm relationship for ten years with someone who has dozens of partners.”

Gay men, in general, are far more likely than heterosexuals to be HIV-positive. But with major refinement of blood screening techniques over the past decade, the overall risk that would result from allowing them back into the donor pool is disputed.

At present, only about 1 in 2 million blood transfusions results in the transmission of HIV. Still, HIV-tainted blood can pass undetected if it is drawn from someone infected two or three days before the draw.

Katz and Bianco would like gay men to be able to donate blood a year after having gay sex. Bianco said that according to the models he uses, this could add approximately one lot of tainted blood to the nation’s supply every 32 years. The FDA estimate, which is based on studies from the 1990s, when many hospitals didn’t use computers to track their blood supplies, estimates that a few contaminated lots would escape detection each year.

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