Gay Blood and the FDA

Coming from California, I’m just old enough to remember the big AIDS scare when it first hit back in the eighties. The epidemic first exploded just about an hour and a half south of where I lived in in the notoriously homosexual friendly metropolis of San Francisco, and back before it was named AIDS it was pointedly called the “Gay Plague.”

Some of the crap that came out of that unfortunately ignorant era was almost humorous had the end result of the disease not been so catastrophic, the one coming to mind initially being the belief that HIV could be transmitted by mosquitos, even resulting in one paranoid woman peddling mosquito zappers as an effective means of preventing the flying little bug suckers from giving you AIDS.

Things have changed since then, of course. We know much more about the disease now in 2007 than we did in 1983, and practices have changed, and the culture has changed making AIDS in relation to the world we live in today much different than it was back then.

I say specifically 1983 because that’s when the FDA initiated a lifetime ban on homosexuals from donating blood, something I’m bringing up now because as is hitting newswires, this is a law that is not only still in place, but was just recently reinforced by the Food and Drug Administration despite criticism from some groups like the Red Cross.

Much like we don’t have to wait for Earth Day to care about the environment, I feel we don’t have to wait until AIDS awareness day to talk about AIDS, so in honor of this rather obsolete law, I figured we’d have ourselves a little discussion.

I think it’s even more important to talk about it now given the fact that under the homophobic state of the union fostered and cultivated by the socially conservative arm of the GOP, so here we go.

AIDS was first discovered in the early eighties as an epidemic running through the homosexual communities of the California Bay Area, more specifically San Francisco, causing anti-gay bigots of the day to call it the Gay Plague, and even more grotesquely, God’s Punishment on Gay people.

The public image of the disease didn’t get much better when it came to light that junkies addicted to predominantly injected drugs were also falling victim to the so called gay plague.

But as we now know, the science behind AIDS puts the disease far beyond some fundamental biblical punishment for sinners. Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is caused by HIV or, Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

The way HIV actually works is pretty simple (that is if you don’t delve too deep and get too technical). Like most viruses, HIV is pretty much a bag of RNA. It invades cells, and crams its RNA into the DNA of the cell under attack. During mitosis, that chunk of DNA left by the virus results in production of more virus particles, turning the body into a kind of mass producer of that which has placed the body under attack.

What makes HIV so deadly is the fact that it attacks the very cells that our body uses to fight off infections such as bacteria and viruses; those cells that comprise the immune system. Helper T Cells, cells used to identify foreign threats in the body and direct the rest of the immune system on how to deal with the threat, come under attack, as well as some of these defense systems such as macrophages (cells that basically “eat” the invading foreign cells).

On top of leveling a very effective attack, HIV is able to avoid our natural defenses based on the fact that there are just a phenomenal number of variations of the virus, and it mutates at the drop of the hat. This is important because, when the body, or even scientists, try to develop an antibody to combat the virus, these things are typically geared to a single strain.

Let’s look at how flu vaccines are developed. You know how you have to have that annoying shot practically every year? Well, there’s a reason. What scientists are actually doing is taking the most likely strains to hit that year, and they make a weaker version of it. That is then injected into your system, which gives your body’s immune system to look at it, develop a defense for it, and be ready for when the real thing comes to play.

But you have to have this shot every year because not all flu viruses are equal, and what will work well against one strain, will be pretty much useless against another. Same with HIV. You could develop an effective vaccine against one strain, but this is in and of itself useless because that vaccine will not work against the multitudes of HIV strains already out there, and are rendered even more worthless considering the virus is mutating almost non stop the moment it actually gets inside your body.

This is why we have yet to come up with a cure even as we speak.

So if we can’t cure AIDS, we can at least stop it from spreading, right? To do that, we need to look at how the virus is spread. Believe it or not, despite how tough of a virus it is to kill once it gets in our bodies, it’s in all actuality a pretty frail virus overall. It doesn’t live very long in open air, and has a hard time surviving in our saliva. Therefore, HIV is transmitted pretty much through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk; that’s about it.

And we’re talking about pretty much direct contact. So, the big things to worry about here are stopping sexual transmission, and transmission via blood transfusions and herein lies the rub of the FDA’s edict.

Back in 1983, this law, while still pretty grotesque in the category of bigotry, at least had some semblence of feasibility based off of two factors. The disease was much more common in homosexuals, and blood donation procedures were ill equipped for a post AIDS environment.

NOTE: I’m about to get graphic here, and I’m going to be doing a little hypothetizing (god I hope that is a real word) so bear with me.

On the gay front, here’s why, at least I think, why the virus transmitted so frequently in the beginning. For one, there is the nature of anal sex, which is about one of only two ways that gay people are going to have sex. Unfortunately with anal sexual intercourse, we’re dealing with two of the fluids that transmit the disease, making the act a high risk one. Two. Semen, obviously, but also blood as anal tissue is highly susceptable to tearing, and therefore, you have this… um… vigorous act going on down there, and you’re therefore making it pretty easy to open up small wounds which become ripe for the transferrence of the disease.

Now this is just a guess, but I’m going to go out on a limb that the use of condoms which would greatly reduce the risk of HIV transmission back in the 80’s was probably not where it is now (or should I say before Bush and his moronic war on intelligent sexual education). That’s to say that before HIV, the usage of condoms was more of a birth control issue as opposed to a self preservation issue, and when you are talking about a community where sexual acts really can’t result in pregnancy, why bother?

But, this is point one where the ban against Gay donors has become somewhat apocrophyl. Despite the efforts of the socially conservative movement to go backwards on sexual education, we are now better educated about protection of sexually transmitted diseases then we were back in the eighties, and one would hope that this education is particularly prevailant in the male homosexual community. I do think that Bush & Co’s sex ed policies have resulted in a regression in the vital understanding in controlling std’s, but still, there’s now way we have regressed back to early 1980’s levels.

Which brings me to point two of why this law is pretty stupid nowadays. GAY PEOPLE ARE NOT THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO HAVE AIDS! Any questions? Comments? Complaints? HIV doesn’t have “Gaydar(tm)”. It doesn’t get into your system and say, “Oh shit, I’m in a hetero, I better get the hell out of here and quick!”

Nope, AIDS is pretty much an equal opportunity killer, and if you are going to stop gay people from donating blood because of AIDS, then you kinda have to ban anyone who can have AIDS from donating blood, and um… that kinda includes ANYONE. I’m just saying.

And finally point three why this law just needs to be done away with. Yes, back in 1983, people did contract aids from blood transfusions. This is because back then, medical professionals who were involved in the blood donation process didn’t know what the hell they were looking for, and depending on how far back you go, that they were supposed to be looking for something in the first place. But that was twenty-four years ago, folks. Since then we’ve put into place screening procedures which have pretty much eliminated the transmission of AIDS through blood transfusions. Gone. They catch the problem before it even becomes a problem.

So there’s no reason to have this law anymore, if there ever really was. You know me, I’m leaning more on the side that the law was pretty bigoted when it was first put into place, but now, it’s not just bigoted, it’s dumb.

NOTE: For some of the details I was a little sketchy on, I did a quick check on Wikipedia, and to find out more I suggest checking out wikipedia.com, lifebeat.org, and aids.org

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