FDA to propose altering ban on gay and bisexual men who want to donate blood
The Food and Drug Administration plans to lift its lifetime ban on blood donation for men who have had sex with other men, and will propose replacing it with a one-year ban after homosexual activity, the agency announced Tuesday.
Gay rights groups, which have long advocated a change to the ban, largely decried the announcement, saying that expecting gay blood donors to remain celibate for a year is not reasonable or medically necessary.
Others were heartened by the relaxation of a long-criticized ban.
“This is a very good next step in a process that began in the early 1980s,” said Jay Menitove, who chaired a federal advisory committee that recommended the change.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “There’s no doubt about it, that any way that you can safely add to the pool of donors to counter this chronic shortage of blood is a good thing.”
The recommended change could increase the U.S. blood supply by 2 percent, researchers said.
Since 1983, the FDA has banned any man from donating blood if he has had sex with another man, even one time, since 1977. The policy was instituted in the early days of the AIDS crisis, when little was known about HIV and fears were rising of a virus transmitted among gay and bisexual men.
As tests for HIV in donated blood became standard, calls for the FDA to lift the ban increased.
Last year, the American Medical Association called for a change; one board member called the ban “discriminatory.”
Peter Marks, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a telephone call with reporters Tuesday that the FDA would draft the new guidelines early next year and then revise them after a public comment period. He said he could not confirm whether the new rules would go into effect next year.
Marks also said the FDA’s study of the issue led it to conclude that gay men should be allowed to donate blood only if they have been abstinent for one year.
“At this time, the scientific evidence is not compelling that we can change to anything less than a one-year deferral and still maintain the current level of safety of the blood supply,” he said.
Gay rights groups challenged that statement Tuesday. They said tests can reliably detect HIV in the blood within much less than a year of infection, so imposing a longer ban is unnecessary.
“A ban of one year doesn’t really make sense, from a scientific or a medical perspective,” said Daniel Bruner, director of legal services at Whitman-Walker Health, a D.C. health-care provider that caters to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients. “It’s overly broad, in that you sweep in a lot of people who pose no risk whatsoever to the blood supply. And you are stigmatizing an entire population by telling people that they need to remain celibate for an entire year — whether they are monogamous, whether they practice safe sex, whether they are on medication like the prophylactic that makes the chance that they become infected almost zero.”
Bruner said that he was glad to hear that the FDA would take public comments before drafting a final policy and that he planned to submit one.
In a statement, the group Gay Men’s Health Crisis said, “Some may believe this is a step forward, but in reality, requiring celibacy for a year is a de facto lifetime ban.”
The Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal, among other gay rights groups, also issued statements saying the policy change is welcome but does not go far enough.
Fauci described the proposed one-year rule as “an abundance of caution.”
He said anyone who contracts HIV would test positive sometime from six weeks to six months after infection. A year-long ban, therefore, serves to set people at ease rather than to give time for infections to turn up in tests.
“With the tests that one has that screen the blood, it makes it extremely unlikely — even under other circumstances less than a year — it makes it extremely unlikely that there would be transmission through blood,” Fauci said.