by Rex Wockner
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Advisory Committee on Blood Safety and Availability decided June 11 to retain the policy that bans blood donation by any man who has had sex with a man at any time, even once, since 1977.
In a 9-6 vote, the committee cited a lack of research to support the notion that lifting the ban would not contaminate the blood supply.
Incongruously, current policy allows people who have unsafe heterosexual sex with someone who has AIDS to donate blood after a one-year waiting period.
Current HIV testing technology can identify a new infection with the virus within about 10 days of transmission.
The committee acknowledged that current policy permits “some potentially high-risk donations while preventing some potentially low-risk donations.”
It called this state of affairs “suboptimal” and suggested more research into the matter.
“This decision is outrageous, irresponsible and archaic,” said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “We expect more out of this advisory committee and this administration than to uphold an unnecessarily discriminatory policy from another era.”
She said all donors should be “screened appropriately and assessed based on actual behavioral risk independent of their sexual orientation.”
The Red Cross and American Civil Liberties Union agreed.
“The American Red Cross is disappointed with the decision made by the (committee) not to recommend a change to the FDA policy of a lifetime deferral for men who have sex with other men,” the organization said. “While the Red Cross is obligated by law to follow the guidelines set forth by the FDA, we also strongly support the use of rational, scientifically based deferral periods that are applied fairly and consistently among donors who engage in similar risk activities.”
“Eligibility for donating blood should be based on scientific evidence, not stigmatizing and outdated stereotypes,” added James Esseks, director of the ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project. “We know that many straight people have HIV. If the existing screening methods are sufficient to protect the blood supply from straight people with HIV, then the government needs a really good reason for having a different rule for gay and bisexual men. It’s not clear that it does.”
A letter in favor of repeal had been sent to Arthur Bracey, chair of the advisory committee, signed by nine U.S. senators and 33 representatives. The effort was spearheaded by Sens. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.).
“The safety of our blood supply is of the utmost importance,” the letter said. “With the advances in medicine over the course of the last three decades, we encourage you to look beyond blanket deferrals and consider screening based on real high risk behavior so we can update our blood donation policies from their early 1980s origins. By keeping discriminatory policies on the books and denying willing donors the opportunity to help others, we put the integrity of the blood donation system at risk.”