By Cassie Spodak
WASHINGTON — As Congress grapples with gun legislation and national security debates in the fallout from Sunday’s terrorist attack at an LGBT night club in Orlando, one lawmaker is looking at the repercussions of a policy that hit close to home: the gay community in Orlando was unable to donate blood to help victims of the shooting.
“The Orlando blood bank put out the call that they needed several kinds of blood, luckily donors stepped up. Of course, the friends, the loved ones, and even spouses of those directly affected were unable to give in that way,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) told CNN in his Washington office days after the attack.
Polis, the first man openly gay who won election to Congress as a freshman, is fighting to overturn Food and Drug Administration policy that effectively bans most gay men — any man who has had sexual contact with another man in the past 12 months — from donating blood.
Along with Reps. Mike Quigley and Barbara Lee, he is planning to send a letter to FDA Commissioner Robert Califf urging him to end the ban.
Before December 2015 the policy was even stricter, banning men who had sex with other men, regardless of when.
The FDA’s policy was first put in place in 1985 during the AIDS epidemic, when little was known about the spread of the disease.
“There’s no science that would support the conclusion that there’s something inherently different about the risk profile based on who someone loves,” Polis told CNN.
“Right now we have the very bizarre and perverse situation that actually endangers our national blood supply, where if somebody happens to be straight but has had unprotected sex with multiple partners of the opposite sex, they’re allowed to donate,” Polis said. “But if somebody is gay and married and in a monogamous relationship they’re actually screened out.”
In a statement on the Orlando shooting, the FDA said: “At this time there is an adequate supply of blood to meet the need, and the scientific evidence is not available to support an alternative to the current deferral policy. We empathize with those who might wish to donate, but reiterate that at this time no one who needs blood is doing without it.”
The FDA also states that they are committed to continuing to reevaluate policies as new scientific information becomes available.
Polis argues that criteria for blood donations should be based on risk factors such as intravenous drug use or unprotected sex and not on the sexual orientation of the person hoping to give blood.
Today every unit of blood donated in the United States must undergo 13 tests, including 10 for infectious diseases (such as HIV, hepatitis and syphilis).
While it is possible to detect HIV in a unit of blood nine to 11 days after infection, the NIH says that once a person is infected with HIV, it generally takes about three months for the body to produce enough antibodies to be detected by an HIV antibody test. For some people, it can take up to six months.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk for acquiring HIV infection through blood transfusion is estimated to be one in 1.5 million.
However, the FDA states that recent studies show that: “a history of male-to-male sexual contact was associated with a 62-fold increased risk for being HIV positive, whereas the increase in risk for a history of multiple sexual partners of the opposite sex in the last year was 2.3-fold.”
When asked Tuesday about the possibility of changing the policy, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said further changes would be rooted in “advice that we’re getting from the scientists at the FDA.”
Polis said Americans can take action to change the policy by spreading the word.
“They just need to hear the public outcry about this policy and move expeditiously to change it.”