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Aurora doctor fights to change cornea donation restriction for gay men

The policy was created when HIV tests weren't as reliable.

AURORA, Colo. — A corneal transplant could cure some forms of blindness, but thousands of people each year are passed up as donors because they're gay. Ophthalmologist, Michael Puente learned about the 27-year-old policy about two years ago and hasn't stopped thinking about it. 

"This is just nonsense that this is still the law," the assistant ophthalmology professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine said. "I've been working the last couple of years to research this policy and raise awareness about it and how to convince the [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)] that it's time to change it."

Over the last two years, Puente rallied other health care workers to share news about the policy. The FDA rule restricts gay men from donating their corneas if they had sex with another man in the last five years. 

The policy was created when HIV tests weren't as reliable. According to a study led by Puente, the deferral policy eliminated more than 3,000 corneal donations in one year alone within the United States and Canada.

Puente said there has never been a case of HIV transmission through a corneal transplant anywhere in the world.

"Even though now we have highly reliable and quick tests for HIV for everyone who donates their cornea, even if all that testing is negative, we still have to enforce the law from 1994," Puente explained. "It was obvious to me that we had to do something to change it." 

Fifty-two members of Congress seemed to agree. Last week, Colorado Congressman Joe Neguse, alongside his colleagues, sent a letter that Puente helped draft to the FDA. It called on the department to change the policy. 

"I was so excited," Puente said as he heard the news. "To have all these power brokers finally take a stand on this for the first time I think it's inevitable we're going to get this to change now." 

The FDA was asked to respond to the request within 30 days.

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