The storm that slammed the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area June 29 did more than cause a few hot uncomfortable nights for residents without air conditioning.

According to Red Cross officials and other blood bank organizations, the storm also severely impacted the blood shortage already affecting patients in need of donations.

“We are asking people to please call 1-800-RED-CROSS or visit us at redcrossblood.org to find a way to donate if they can,” Stephanie Millian, Red Cross director of biomedical communications, said to CNN. “We need people’s help.”

Blood banks, human rights organizations, and politicians have called for the United States to repeal the Food and Drug Administration policy of deferring, or turning away gay men as donors.

Last month, 64 senators led by John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking that the deferment of such donors be stopped. The lawmakers applauded the department’s initiative in re-evaluating the risks and current policies on the issue.

“Patients across the country desperately need life-saving blood transfusions, yet perfectly healthy would-be donors are turned away based solely on sexual orientation,” Quigley wrote in the letter. “Equality for the LGBT community is closer than ever but outdated and discriminatory policies like this must evolve to match advancements in science and technology.” Donors are restricted for life if they disclose that they have slept with one man, a policy in place since 1977, when health officials declared that AIDS had turned into an epidemic in the United States. The question is included in routine screens before donors are allowed to give nationwide.

Those in favor of deferring donors claim that the “window period,” or the span of time between initial infection and when the virus or its antibodies can create a positive test result, is too much of a risk.

In order for HIV to show up in a test, the body has to first build up antibodies to fight the virus, which let doctors know the disease is present. According to the Centers for Disease Control, gay males accounted for 61 percent of new HIV infections nationwide in 2009.

“HIV tests currently in use are highly accurate, but still cannot detect HIV 100 percent of the time,” the FDA said in a statement. “It is estimated that the HIV risk from a unit of blood has been reduced to about 1 per 2 million in the USA, almost exclusively from so called ‘window period’ donations.”

Policies do little to single out and defer heterosexual donors who have unprotected sex with multiple partners, though CDC data shows that the Black female population made up the second largest category of reported new HIV infections in 2009.

According to CNN, 95 percent of all Americans will at some point need a blood donation but only 20 percent of them will actually become donors. Last month, with bad weather and high heat, donations fell more than 10 percent.

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer