(USA TODAY, Tony Leys and Heidi Hall, Gannett) -- Gay men across the nation plan to offer to donate their blood Friday, even though they expect to be turned away.
The blood drive, targeting 53 donor sites nationally, is designed to protest a 1977 federal policy barring gay and bisexual men from donating blood.
"It's just ridiculous to me that they don't allow gay men to donate when there are so many in need of blood," said Dakerri Barber-Rhone, who is coordinating an event in Nashville, Tenn., where demonstrators will attempt to donate blood at the American Red Cross.
The demonstration seeks to get the Food and Drug Administration to follow an American Medical Association recommendation that the ban be changed to reflect individual risks in donors, not their sexual behavior.
The original ban was put into effect as HIV was first being discovered in the blood supply. Since then, all blood is tested for the virus, along with other pathogens such as hepatitis. Still, when donors enter the American Red Cross or other donation centers, they're asked on a questionnaire whether they are a man who has sex with men. If they are, they're asked to leave.
"Now we've seen, with the testing that we have today, that the blood pool has shown to be very safe without having to go through this regulation," said Dr. Emily Blodget, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Southern California. "To be honest, (HIV infection) could happen with anyone now. We need to be just as concerned with heterosexuals as homosexuals."
Greg Gross, who works for a Des Moines, Iowa, AIDS prevention group, said the ban no longer serves a legitimate public health purpose.
"It's because of this stigma and old belief that most gay men have HIV," he said. The vast majority of gay men are not infected, he said, even though as a whole, their group has a relatively high infection rate.
Gross is prevention services manager for the Project of Primary Health Care. He and his colleagues plan to be in a recreational vehicle parked outside the LifeServe Blood Center in downtown Des Moines on Friday.
They will run HIV tests on prospective blood donors and give them documents showing when the tests come up negative. The participants plan to then go into the blood center and truthfully answer a questionnaire that asks whether they've had sex with other men since 1977. Those who say they have will be told they can't donate blood.
Gross said organizers of the national protest will collect documentation at each event, and send it to the FDA to demonstrate how many potential blood donations are being turned away because of the ban.
LifeServe spokeswoman Beth Phillips expressed sympathy for the protesters.
"LifeServe Blood Center is not and has never been concerned with the sexual orientation of our blood donors and believes all donors and potential donors should be treated with fairness, equality and respect, and that accurate donor history and medically supported donor deferral criteria are critical to the continued safety of blood transfusion," Phillips wrote in a prepared statement. "However, FDA requirements are mandatory for licensed blood collection facilities so there is no latitude to change this deferral until the FDA revises its regulation."
FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky said the agency strives to balance the need for blood with the need to keep the supply safe. She wrote in an email that men who have had sex with other men continue to have the highest rates of HIV infection. Such men represent about 2 percent of the country's population, she wrote, but in 2010 they accounted for at least 61 percent of all new HIV infections.
Liscinsky noted that the FDA also requires that blood donations be barred from other groups of people, including those who have used intravenous drugs, worked as prostitutes, have hepatitis or traveled to countries with high risks of malaria or mad-cow disease.
She said federal officials continue to study the situation.
"FDA remains willing to consider new approaches to donor screening and testing," she wrote. "If those approaches can assure that blood recipients are not placed at an increased risk of HIV or other transfusion transmitted diseases, FDA will consider a change to its current policy."
The American Red Cross has issued a national statement asking for demonstrators to stay out of their offices for fear of disrupting already busy intake workers. It said it supports modifying the lifetime ban into a one-year deferral.