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After Horrific Shooting At Gay Club, Most Gay Men Still Can’t Donate Blood To Help

Emergency personnel wait with stretchers at the emergency entrance to Orlando Regional Medical Center hospital for the arrival of patients from the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PHELAN M. EBENHACK
Emergency personnel wait with stretchers at the emergency entrance to Orlando Regional Medical Center hospital for the arrival of patients from the scene of a fatal shooting at Pulse Orlando nightclub in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2016. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PHELAN M. EBENHACK

Fifty people are dead after a deadly mass shooting inside a popular gay Orlando nightclub. More than 50 people are also being treated at local hospitals.

Thousands are lining up to donate blood so that hospitals can care for the injured victims. Orange County firefighters tweeted that there was an “urgent” need. Marco Rubio, in an interview on CNN, encouraged people to donate, as did the Center for American Islamic Relations, which urged Muslims to take part in a blood donation drive, according to a press release.

Yet after the attack on the LGBT nightclub — during Pride month — many members of the community won’t be able to help, thanks to a discriminatory rule restricting when gay men can donate.

The grisly attack happened at Pulse, which calls itself “not another gay nightclub,” on a busy Saturday during LGBT Pride month. The club was opened to promote awareness about the Orlando LGBT community and named in honor of the owner’s brother, who died of AIDS. Saturday was Latin night.

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The motive for the attack is still unclear, but suspect Omar Saddiqui Mateen reportedly had ties to Islamic extremist groups and had expressed homophobia before. His father told NBC News that his son became “very angry” after seeing two men kiss each other in Miami months ago.

AIDS Hysteria

Following the HIV/AIDS epidemic and related panic, a total ban on gay men donating blood was put in place in 1983. The policy prohibited donations by any man who engaged in oral or anal sex with another man — even if it was only once — at any time since 1977. While the FDA announced a policy change lifting the lifetime ban last year, many gay men are still excluded based solely on their sexual identity.

Under the new rules, self-identified men who have not had sex with another man in over a year can donate, as long as they meet the other qualifications (other disqualifying factors include travel to specified high-risk regions, taking antibiotics, or being out of the accepted age or weight range).

While the new rule allows abstinent gay men, transgender women, and some bisexuals would to donate, it still excludes a wide swath of the gay population. The National Gay Blood Drive praised the move at the time, calling it a good first step, but noted that the revision was still discriminatory.

“While many gay and bisexual men will be eligible to donate their blood and help save lives under this 12 month deferral, countless more will continue to be banned solely on the basis of their sexual orientation and without medical or scientific reasoning,” they said in a statement.

A Better Way To Screen

Critics instead argue that distinctions should be made based on individual risk assessments. The current rule fails to take into account whether the would-be donors used a condom, only engaged in oral sex, was on PrEP, or had otherwise reduced the odds of HIV transmission or repeatedly tested negative.

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The Williams Institute estimated in 2014 that lifting the ban would likely result in 360,000 more blood donors annually, an increase of about 2 to 4 percent. The United Kingdom, who moved to a similar 12-month ban in 2011, reported recently that since allowing gay men to donate blood, there are fewer infections detected in blood samples. Virtually no one gets HIV due to a transfusion, and all donated blood is tested for HIV/AIDS.