February 02, 2022

Ophthalmologist advocates for LGBTQ+ members to be able to donate cornea tissue

The Food and Drug Administration recently announced it will revise its cornea tissue donation policy which prevents people in the LGBTQ+ community from donating.

The previous policy, which had not been updated since 1994, recommended disqualifying men who have had sex with men in the preceding five years from becoming tissue donors.

Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Dr. Michael Puente originally began researching the topic in 2019 when he came across it during his residency.

“I read about a young boy who had committed suicide due to being bullied because he was gay,” said Puente, who is an ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s North Campus in Broomfield. “His mother said he was allowed to donate all organs aside from his eyes solely because he was gay.”

According to Puente, about 12 million people in the world suffer some type of corneal disease and could benefit from cornea donation. There is currently a worldwide shortage of cornea donations, with only approximately one donation per 70 people that need it.

Puentes was surprised no other ophthalmologists had spoken up in the past about this outdated and stigmatizing policy. He started reaching out to eye banks across the United States and Canada to find out how many cornea donations were being turned down because of this policy. 

“We found out around 1,600 to 3,200 cornea donations a year are turned away just because the donor is gay,” Puente said.

Technology in testing for HIV/AIDS has improved drastically since the original policy was enacted, making it much easier to test potential donors. Puente said every donor goes through three highly accurate and quick tests for HIV/AIDS. Puente also noted that there has never been a recorded case of transmission of HIV/AIDS through cornea transplants.

Puente began reaching out to the FDA to advocate for this policy change with the research to back it up, but he was not successful in gaining the FDA’s attention. Last fall, Puente approached Congressman Joe Neguse’s office with the issue.

Neguse’s staff was immediately excited to help, according to Puente. They worked together to draft a letter to the FDA, which ended up receiving 52 signatures from members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

“I am pleased that FDA has reviewed its policy and will move away from the discriminatory recommendations that stop LGBTQ individuals from contributing needed tissue donations,” Neguse said in a news release. “To put it simply, LGBTQ people deserve to enjoy the same rights and responsibilities as all other Americans, and our policies should not perpetuate stigma. I’m proud to join my colleagues in helping usher this change through, and we will continue to demand justice and end the discrimination and bias that has permeated our society for far too long.”

Puente said he believes it’s just common sense to change this policy and is incredibly excited he was able to be a part of this change.

“It’s a pretty incredible feeling,” Puente said. “This policy deprived thousands of blind people from receiving the surgery they need.”

Puente believes the FDA will follow similar guidelines to the current blood donation policy, which is a three-month deferral period. That policy is also currently under review and could possibly be shortened.

If you would like to find out more information about this movement, visit Puente’s website at legalizegayeyes.org.

By:  Sydney McDonald
Source: Daily Camera