Proposal seeks to change screening of blood donors

by Sara Goo

The student who proposed to change the Food and Drug Administration’s blood donation policy, accusing it of discrimination against possible donors, may be getting closer to his goal.
Sean Wherley, president of the University Gay Community, said in January 1996 that he would organize a boycott against campus blood drives in February 1996 because of an FDA policy that refuses blood donations from men who have had sex with another man any time since 1977.
Wherley said this policy discriminates against people based on sexual orientation instead of sexual behavior because it does not address whether safe sex was practiced.
But instead of boycotting, Wherley and Boynton Health Service Director Edward Ehlinger formed a task force to examine whether the policy was valid.
A task force subgroup drafted a resolution that proposes to eliminate the male-to-male sex clause in the policy and replace it with “any individual who has had anal sex (intercourse) even one time within the last 12 calendar months.” A task force made up of local health and administrative organizations will vote next week on the resolution.
“It would allow a lot more people to donate,” said Wherley about the proposal.
If the task force approves the resolution when it meets May 15, Ehlinger said he hopes to take it to the national level, indirectly challenging the FDA’s policy.
Members of the task force have national connections to organizations that could influence the FDA. For example, the Memorial Blood Center in Minneapolis, which collects and stores blood, works closely with the American Red Cross, which in turn can influence the FDA.
“(The resolution) could potentially have a lot of clout,” Wherley said.
In order to change the current federal policy on blood donations, the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would need to approve the change.
The task force included representatives from the Minnesota AIDS Project, Memorial Blood Center and Boynton Health Service.
The group’s consensus was that 12 months was a reasonable time period to detect HIV infection in blood, rather than since 1977, Wherley said. Citing a lack of data on the use of condoms to prevent HIV transmission, the group dismissed Wherley’s suggestion to exclude those who had engaged in unprotected sex from donating blood. But Wherley said he was satisfied with the resolution as it stands, and is hopeful the FDA will approve the group’s recommendation.
The draft also proposes changing a similar clause that pertains to prostitution. The proposal would change the current policy, which excludes people who have engaged in sex for money or drugs at any time since 1977, to one that excludes people who have taken part in such activities in the last 12 months.
Factors such as the effectiveness of current blood tests and the window period — the time between HIV transmission and when the antibodies become detectable — were used in coming up with the suggestion for a 12-month period, Ehlinger said.
He added that despite initial disagreements among some task force members, the members were open- minded in discussions.
While Ehlinger takes on the national policy, Wherley plans to attack the issue at the University level. Wherley said he has talked to a University Senate committee to examine whether the blood drives on campus violate the University’s anti-discrimination policy. The University’s policy forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Wherley said he has spoken to Regent Jean Keffeler about the issue and expects to eventually take the issue to the entire Board of Regents.