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A controversial blood drive?

BY ZACH WAHLS | DECEMBER 01, 2010 7:20 AM

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Today, the World Health Initiative, a University of Iowa student organization, will host a blood drive in support of World AIDS Day. Those looking to donate blood (particularly all you O-positives out there) or financial resources should report to 256 IMU between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

"For me, it's a way to reach students from all backgrounds," World Health Initiative chairwoman Sukriti Nayar told me. "I'm an accounting and finance major, but I still believe in volunteering and in educating my peers and fellow community members about the need we have here in our very own locality."

A noble goal, to be sure, but it's not one without controversy.

After all, men who have had sex with even one other man since 1977 are banned from donating blood in the United States. The archaic ban was instituted in the early 1980s as HIV/AIDS — then known as Gay-related Immune Deficiency — first broke out in the United States. The ban is an issue that has been raised around the country, particularly on college campuses.

Three years ago, the Greek Week Executive Council at Iowa State even withdrew its support from ISU's annual blood drive, which usually draws 2,000-plus donors, a large number of them greek, for just this reason. ISU was far from the only campus to experience a boycott of blood drives to protest the ban.

Despite the concerns, which are not baseless, we should look at the purpose of the blood drive — which, according to Nayar, is to get donors thinking about blood-related diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Conducting a blood drive in the name of HIV/AIDS awareness may seem to be adding insult to injury. Yet the fact is that this conversation raises further awareness and is in and of itself a demonstration of how far our society has come. Do you think this was even a question in 1990?

Still, the fact remains that men who have had sex with other men since 1977 has an HIV contraction rate 60 times higher than the general population, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

As someone with gay parents, I can assure you I am neither homophobic nor discriminatory against people living with HIV. But while the law may have been a knee-jerk reaction and is now outdated, its intentions were hardly malicious. (It may be worth noting that HIV/AIDS rates are falling among every single US demographic except gay men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Infection.)

The blood drive is exactly World Health Initiative's modus operandi. The organization routinely takes a macro-level look at global issues — such as famine and hunger — and then ties them to micro-level volunteering and education here in Iowa City, as manifested in its work with Table to Table and Meals on Wheels.

At the end of the day, this blood drive will help people who need blood, and it will force donors to consider both the awesome and destructive power of the fluid they're donating. (There's nothing quite like watching blood flow out of your body.) Most people in the world — including in the United States — who have HIV/AIDS are not gay men. To assume otherwise (I'm looking at you, FDA) is just factually incorrect.

I sincerely hope that individuals with HIV, and all those otherwise prohibited from donating, will agree that however embarrassing and inane the ban, the life-saving power (nearly 5 million people per year in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health) of donated blood outweighs the downsides.

I've never donated blood before, but I'm planning on doing so today. If you are unable to donate — whatever the reason — please note that there are other ways to make a positive contribution in the spirit of solidarity and increased awareness.

I hope to see you there.


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