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Nationwide blood drive aims to lift donation ban by gays

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In an effort to raise awareness about a 1977 federal policy barring gay and bisexual men from donating blood, men like Kit O'Connell are getting HIV rapid tests.

Once O'Connell is done at "the Q" in Austin, he heads over to the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas.

"My results were negative today. I am free of HIV antibodies," said O'Connell.

The idea is to put pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to follow a recommendation that the ban be changed to reflect individual risks in donors, not their sexual behavior.

"We are mandated by the FDA to follow their rules and regulations, so we want to remain in compliance," said Cindy Rowe, with the donation site on north Lamar. "If the man does answer yes to that question, that they have had sex with another man, even once, since 1977, then they will be permanently deferred."

The original ban was put into effect as HIV was first being discovered in the blood supply.

O'Connell said, "Here's my blood donor card and my HIV results. Unfortunately, because of the FDA policy I was not able to give blood today."

Now, all donated blood is tested for the virus and other pathogens, like hepatitis.

"This is decades later. We know how to test for HIV and there's all kinds of other risky behaviors that aren't taken into account," said O'Connell.

Rowe said, "Each blood donation is put through a series of 14 tests and usually we will get the results back from these tests in 24 hours and as long as everything comes back with no problems, the blood is put on the shelves."

"I think that the blood centers are really on our side on this, it's really the FDA that's against us. So, I see them as allies that would help me if they could, but their hands are tied," added O'Connell.

Rowe said, "The blood and tissue center, in conjunction with America's blood centers and the American Association of Blood Banks and the American Red Cross, believes that the current lifetime deferral for men who have had sex with other men should be modified."

As each donor gets rejected, their test results are collected and will be delivered to the FDA, visually conveying how much blood they could contribute to the nation's blood supply.

O'Connell said, "There's all this blood out there. People who would love to donate and yet this, old prejudice that dates back to when we didn't understand how AIDS worked, is still in effect."

Both sides hope to one day be able to utilize this untapped market.

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