FDA committee will decide whether to end the ban on donations from gay and bisexual men; if lifted, the FDA will likely adopt a one-year deferral instead
A group of advisers to the US Federal Drug Administration are meeting for two days this week to consider overturning a controversial 30-year-old ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men.
The FDA, which regulates blood banks, currently prohibits any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 from donating blood because, according to the agency, the excluded population is at an increased risk for HIV, Hepatitis B and certain other infections that can be transmitted by blood. LGBT rights groups have long sought to overhaul the lifetime deferral policy, arguing that the restrictions are rooted in homophobia rather than modern science.
Last month, an advisory panel of doctors and blood-donation advocates recommended the FDA end the ban and move to a one-year deferral, bringing the US more in line with countries like the UK, Canada and Australia. The FDA blood products advisory committee will spend Tuesday and Wednesday considering that advice, although it is under no obligation to adopt the group’s proposed change.
If the FDA approves the rule change, only gay men who have been abstinent for one year will be permitted to donate blood. Put another way, any man who has had sex with another man in the past 12 months, regardless of whether the pair is in a committed relationship or practices safe sex, will be barred from donating blood.
All donated blood is rigorously tested for HIV and other viruses before being released to hospitals. Supporters of a celibacy period argue that the lag between the time of infection and the point when the virus can be detected in a person’s blood could result in false-negative test results. However, modern blood tests can detect HIV in as early as two weeks.
At a time when the American Red Cross has warned the national blood supply is currently lower than expected, a report by the Williams Institute, a think tank based at the UCLA School of Law, estimated that lifting the blood donations ban on gay men would likely result in an extra 360,600 donations , adding 615,300 additional pints of blood available for infusions. If the report’s estimates are correct, this would raise the national blood supply by between 2% and 4%.
The policy dates back to the early 1980s when the country was in the throes of the Aids crisis and doctors and scientists understood little about the virus that would claim millions of lives over the next quarter-century. But as faster, more reliable testing for the virus has become available – and as the country’s attitude towards gay and bisexual Americans has become more progressive – activists and scientists have pushed for it to be changed.
A 2010 study published in Transfusion, the American Association of Blood Banks’ (AABB) monthly journal, found “no evidence that the implementation of the 12-month deferral for male-to-male sex resulted in an increased recipient risk for HIV in Australia”. The study said noncompliance, rather than the duration of the abstinence period, posed the greatest risk.
The AABB and the American Red Cross have supported changes to the current policy.
The proposal was met with mixed reactions, with some hailing the vote as the end of an era and a first step toward ending a deferral period, and others upset that a celibacy period would still be required.
Responding to a critic of the one-year abstinence period, the National Gay Blood Drive, a group that supports the policy shift, said on Twitter last month: “We support eliminating sexual orientation from the blood donation process altogether – this a huge first step in that direction.”